Andrea Plascencia

As teachers adjust to a new normal through online learning, they contemplate the future of school.

Learning to accept

Teachers adjust to new regime

May 22, 2020

Spring tends to be a time of euphoria for teachers and students. Though tasks are endless and stress is at an all-time high, the underlying excitement about the quickly approaching summer always prevails. The end of year, though unbearable at times, is jam-packed with events and activities to give the school year a sense of finality.

This year, however, COVID-19 has turned what is meant to be a time of celebration into a time of grief, confusion and missed opportunities. For teachers and students alike, the transition to online learning has been a period of immense hardship and adaptation.

Teachers all across the district are left with one pressing question: What does this mean for the future of learning?

Introduction to the digital classroom

What was supposed to be a week of spring break quickly turned into months at home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, the academic year was not complete, meaning teachers had to change their traditional classroom setting and provide a digital learning experience.

“Environments are fluid and depend on the circumstances,” Creekside Elementary assistant principal Iliana Diaz said. “With that being said, there has been much adjustment from working in a building to working from home with a completely new set of tools. It’s a very uncertain time when everyone is trying to do what they believe to be best for those depending on them. For teachers, that includes their loved ones and their students. Educators, in general, are very adaptable.”

Though teachers have figured out ways to accustom themselves to this new online regime, they have encountered plenty of obstacles, such as making sure all students’ needs are met regardless of the limitations.

“The biggest adjustment has been communication,” Alice Moore Alexander Elementary principal Lindsay Henderson said. “We have had to adjust to phone calls, video conferencing and emails rather than our normal face-to-face communication. Another adjustment is the increased communication with families that is needed to ensure students are able to access learning resources and [continue] to learn.”

Countless struggles of a new normal

Due to the uncertain nature surrounding the pandemic, educators and students alike have struggled to find a balance. For students ranging from elementary to high school, online learning highlights an existing obscurity. With little routine in their daily lives, students lose sight of the essence of learning, resulting in a decline in academic performance.

Teachers whose ultimate goal is to provide a student with a fulfilling education are given the seemingly impossible task to reach every student. They also hope to continue encouraging them to keep striving for success, not limited to academics.

“In many ways, the job itself hasn’t changed,” English 3 teacher Blake Hollowell said. “Any educator worth their salt aims to ‘meet students where they’re at’ and spur them forward. The difficulty of the present moment is that our students are now in wildly different places than they were even weeks ago, and [moving] ‘forward’ could very well just mean ‘toward healthy.’ And that’s OK.”

Although students claim they can’t wait to get out of school, deep down they know they love being around their friends and their teachers.

— Huffines Middle School GT teacher Traci Bradley

Though it is frequently overlooked, the public school education system gives students and educators a sense of solidity. Teachers have come to understand while students did not always appreciate the five-day school week, it was a routine students could count on. During the online learning period, the lack of structure has rendered students unmotivated and discouraged.

“Students have probably scattered,” Huffines Middle School seventh and eighth grade GT teacher Traci Bradley said. “Having to stay home can be lonely [and] coming together with classmates via technology to combat the isolation can never replace personal touch. Although students claim they can’t wait to get out of school, deep down they know they love being around their friends and their teachers. The ‘Good morning’ each day is something we take for granted.”

The well-being of each individual student has made its way to the top of educators’ priority list. Mediums like Zoom and Webex serve not only as means of instruction, but open the door to conversation so students and their families can vocalize their concerns, as mental and emotional health has also been on the decline during this time.

“Once the state and district decided it was best for everyone not to return to school after the break, I created a log for each teacher to communicate with students and families at least twice a week,” Diaz said. “The log included questions about access to wifi, food, technology devices, applications needed and so forth. However, the most important question in those logs was ‘How are you and your family doing?’ Once the logs were completed, my principal, counselor and I went through them to ensure we were making contact with all our families. When any of the answers raised a red flag, we divided up to personally contact those families via phone calls or visits. I’m happy to say that out of almost five hundred students, we were able to reach all but two families. We gave that information to the district and authorities to check on those families to ensure their well being.”

Intervening with learning

Due to the altering of the traditional learning environment, the education process for students enrolled in assistance and intervention programs has been seriously affected. For dyslexia interventionist Julie Mining, the current pandemic is a cause for concern, as she has had to find alternative ways to serve her students.

“It was difficult to transition to online schooling because so many of the things we do in class require [tools] that are in my classroom,” Mining said. “They are not things students would have in their homes.”

Tracking progress and seeing that kids are advancing in their learning is another challenge for Mining. The physicality of the classroom setting facilitated the education process and eliminated the struggles dyslexic students often face when taking in new information.

“The greatest obstacle during this time has been trying to teach a multisensory curriculum without all the materials we use on a daily basis in the classroom,” Mining said. “[I am not] able to observe students as they do their work during our lessons. The observations help guide my differentiated instruction for each student.”

Making efforts

The attempts made by teachers to reach out to students during this time go far beyond the online communication. Throughout this period of online learning, they have moved on to become an essential support system for families in need.

“I have FaceTimed with a few students whose parents asked me to talk to in hopes of motivating them,” Henderson said. “I am [also] present for meal distributions on Wednesdays at my campus and talk to students in their car asking if they have been reading and doing their work. It’s important to ensure our parents feel the most supported during this time since they are taking on the primary teacher presence in the home. Any time I see or talk to a parent, I always ask if there is anything we can do to support their family.”

With the constant confusion surrounding today’s academic reality, teachers have had to deal with getting their younger students to adapt. As a way to normalize the situation and bring light into an otherwise dark period of time, teachers have gotten in touch with their creative sides, serving as testimonies that online learning does not have to be a bore.

“It has been a challenge to help our younger ones to participate in the learning and all the activities we have created,” Diaz said. “Yet, we have amazingly creative teachers and staff that have done wonders to maintain some kind of normalcy for all our students. We have had ‘special guests’ including our counselor, specials teachers, administrators and other parents in cartoon costumes to maintain their engagement. To manage classes better, our teachers have also broken their groups into smaller numbers to provide a more direct instruction and attention to all of our students.”

As a staff, teachers have found the value of staying connected amongst each other during this time. They recognize teamwork is the one true tool that can help them further serve their students and will ultimately carry them forward during this period.

“My message is that we must keep united with our purpose in mind to go through this,” Diaz said. “Interestingly, our theme this year was #StrongerTogether. I believe we are hyper-aware now that we live in a society that is codependent on others to meet even our basic needs. We must be empathetic.”

Finding strength in times of weakness

In addition to taking comfort in unity, the time at home has given educators the opportunity to make time to assist themselves, something they’re not always able to do as they are looking after others.

“I’ve developed a new appreciation for active self-care,” Hollowell said. “In uncertain times, it’s difficult to feel I have any agency over what’s going on around me, so it has become crucial to exercise control over what is within my power. I’m re-learning an instrument, I’m cooking and I’ve stopped drinking caffeine. It might not seem terribly significant, but even small personal improvements help me feel like I have more jurisdiction over our otherwise untethered circumstances.”

I hope they’re kind to themselves and remember that, even if it’s not as obvious behind a screen, people care about them, a whole campus full.

— English 3 teacher Blake Hollowell

By making time for personal care and investing time in activities unrelated to school, teachers find they can better serve their students and co-workers and find a normalcy in the irregularity of life at the moment.

“I’ve always believed if I’m not well, I cannot serve my students well,” Diaz said. “That holds no matter the position or the situation. Luckily, I have an extremely supportive family that understands my role and will do anything to support my students through me. Perhaps [it’s] selfish, but I have leaned on them to find strength and motivation to keep my spirits up throughout the crisis.”

Though it is unclear what this pandemic means for the future of public schools, teachers hope students don’t lose sight of their aspirations. As the school year comes to a close, teachers long for students to view education as a powerful tool that will help them recover from life’s hardships. Above all, they wish to remind students that even from afar, they have a support system.

“I hope this moment is one which students will look back on as evidence of just how much they can handle,” Hollowell said. “I hope school administrators will choose to be inspired by the effort most students continue to pour out, despite increased work hours and record global anxiety. I hope students use this time to actively work in pursuit of goals they deem important. I hope they’re kind to themselves and remember that, even if it’s not as obvious behind a screen, people care about them, a whole campus full.”

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    Traci BRADLEYMay 22, 2020 at 1:16 PM

    Nice job Andrea!