This NYC teacher wants her students to know she’s struggling, too

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.


Nestled on her couch, Karin Burrell-Stinson fills her long workdays in her small Manhattan studio apartment videoconferencing with her classes, checking in with individual students, and providing feedback on their work. But a teacher’s job hardly ends there, she said.

Even in normal times, and especially during the coronavirus crisis, “teachers do social work, they send information about [food] pantries in students’ neighborhoods. Teachers are having three-way calls with phone companies to get internet service for students because their parents cannot navigate the different options,” said Burrell-Stinson, a 20-year veteran educator who teaches English as a New Language at Khalil Gibran International Academy.

She also works hard to validate her students’ complicated feelings and logistical challenges. “Some send me pictures of doing classwork in the bathroom at night when it is quiet, while others are trying to do school assignments while they’re on the job at a deli,” said Burrell-Stinson, who has worked for the past five years at Khalil Gibran, a dual-language English-Arabic high school in Brooklyn.

Burrell-Stinson spoke recently with Chalkbeat about online learning challenges prevalent among children who are still learning English, what she does to keep her students on track, and the importance of fostering grit and resilience, especially now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What does a typical school day look like now?

There is no typical day yet. School is in my studio apartment, which is a first. I have students who know my cell phone number now. I start my day with a Google Hangout notification, most likely. The early birds have already started on the work that is assigned for the day.  

Then, I brainstorm a mental list of who I am teaching for the day. If any alarms go off,  I text or email those children, so as to try and capture them before they even think about escaping class. After the coffee pot is on and I am showered, I am on the couch working until about 6 or 7 p.m. Whether in a Google Meet or on the phone with a student, a parent, or Spectrum, I am poking around to see who has joined the class or whose cursor is bouncing in a Google Classroom document so he or she knows I know work is being produced, and feedback will be returned. If I had to offer one word for school life now? “Incessant” comes to mind.  

How are you adapting to remote learning? 

Adapting? Not at all. But I am surviving because my care for students’ learning is everything. 

What about your students — how are they adjusting? 

That is a good question. It is hard to answer. One of my students would be safer at school than at home. Then there are students who have more family members in the home now that jobs have been cut. There are students who have younger siblings and have to help them with assignments or put them on their laps while they watch a video for history class. There are students who have no internet [at home] and don’t know how to access Google Classroom on their phones, or they don’t want to burden a guardian with surcharges because they don’t have unlimited data plans. Some send me pictures of doing classwork in the bathroom at night when it is quiet, while others are trying to do school assignments while they’re on the job at a deli.  

How are you advising your students to get through this?

Many students have griped about how much harder it is to do work online, how challenging it is to be away from teachers and friends, or not to have that daily sugar-filled coffee from whatever franchise they frequent. These children have shared that they feel depressed and confined. They feel they don’t want to do the work, and they definitely don’t want to be on the phone with me during office hours or the you-missed-class-at-9-a.m. makeup session I offer. 

I tell them, “You’re right to feel like this is not the best situation, that school via computer is hard, sometimes too hard, and I thank you for saying so. You’re right not to want to be here. I don’t want to teach this way, and I am tired. We are doing it together, and we are going to move on. Being in school from morning till night is not normal, the world’s response to the virus is not normal. What is normal is to feel the way you do, to talk about it, and to know that the teacher who doesn’t even know how to use the mute button on Google Hangouts is struggling with you to have you gain some kind of knowledge everyday. When she sees [you] thinking in complete sentences, it makes it all worth it to push through with you.” 

Are there any challenges specific to teaching English Language Learners remotely?

Not only are many ELLs not fully literate in English, but some are also not computer-literate. If they don’t attend a Google Meet or Google Hangout, they don’t see the body language that makes information more comprehensible, they don’t hear the intonation in my voice, and I don’t see their puzzled faces that communicate that they need another example to make the wheels in their minds turn in the right direction. They are still learning to submit assignments, to navigate the myriad emails from their eight teachers. 

Do you think this experience we’re all having will give people a better appreciation of what classroom teachers do, day in and day out?

I still don’t know that some people will understand that teachers do social work, they send information about [food] pantries in students’ neighborhoods. Teachers are having three-way calls with phone companies to get internet service for students because their parents cannot navigate the different options. Not everyone speaks Spanish, so the Spanish line is not always an option, especially for most of the students I teach, who are largely from Yemen, Bangladesh, Haiti or Senegal.   

Do you expect there to be significant lags in student learning, and if so what will you do to address any such lags once school buildings reopen?

Some students are able to persevere in this realm more than in the classroom. Those children who don’t feel safe in the classroom are thriving. There is also truth in the fact that students don’t have us teachers there everyday to guide them. As a result, they have to push their thinking in formidable ways. Sure, there will be lags in learning. Yet at the same time, some students are able to reveal how much grit they have, and how resilient they are. 

What gives you hope at this moment? 

My colleagues who are in the trenches with me everyday. The students who are s-t-r-u-g-g-l-i-n-g with living in unstable situations motivate me every time they hand in an assignment that communicates how driven, responsible, and in need of moving forward they are. Finally, the former students who remind me that it is the small moments, lessons, and shares that are the true takeaways that inspired them to keep learning and rising to a next level of excellence that they defined for themselves. 

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