Three teachers tell how they reinvented the way they reach students
by Jacquelyn Giambalvo
photography by Mya-Lin Lewis
What is it like to be a teacher during the coronavirus pandemic? Thousands of teachers are entering the classroom during one of the most intense times for education in recent history. For many, it means they will teach lessons on-line from their kitchen table or bedroom. For others, it means teaching on-line in an empty classroom, as opposed to a classroom full of children. Regardless of how they are teaching, the notion of what school looks like has been flipped upside down.
The health emergency that started in mid-March 2020 forced the closing of schools throughout the United States, sending millions of K-12 students and teachers home for the remainder of the school year. Overnight, the pandemic imposed a radical switch to remote teaching and learning that all hoped would only be temporary. People soon learned that schools closing will be indefinite as the country coped with one of the most severe worldwide public health crises of our lifetime. So how are teachers feeling about this?
Meet Jeanette Keeler, second grade teacher at Gladstone Elementary School in the Bonita Unified School District. She says it is an eerie feeling teaching in her empty classroom to her 25 second grade Gladstone Elementary School students. She teaches via Zoom fall semester and had to adjust to this new teaching environment and technology on the fly, mostly learning about Zoom on her own through YouTube on-line lessons. She is now a pro at using Zoom but has to come up with new ways to challenge the children and incorporate new ideas to keep them motivated.
When the on-line shift happened in March around spring break, the race was on for teachers and students to figure out new technology. The teaching more face-to-face – literally, yet more remote given that students were not in a physical plane with the teacher and class members. While each student is in the front row now on Zoom, that does not mean their attention span is captured. Putting elementary students online for 4 1/2 hours a day and asking them to sit still in front of a computer is a challenge. Jeanette says the Bonita Unified School district has a rigorous program, and teachers are asked to teach the children like they are in the classroom; the students still have a recess and lunch breaks. A regular day for Jeanette begins with her class starting at 8 a.m. with an emotional check-in where she daily asks each child to give her a “rose or a thorn” or a “peach or a pit” to tell her something positive or negative that is going on with them. While Jeanette checks in with each person during roll call, students are working on spiral review math work. When the emotional check in is complete, she moves to an hour of math instruction followed by language arts. The children have a daily brain break at 9 a.m. and recess at 10 a.m. When they return from recess, she teaches more language arts. In the afternoon, she leads a weekly mixture of science, social studies, art, physical education, yoga, Leader in Me and music.
Mixed into this schedule is when select students go into breakout rooms with intervention teachers and receive academic help. Jeanette also has “Fun Fridays,” where in the afternoon she leads scavenger hunts, bingo or the name five game. They also still do birthday celebrations. “I try to mimic mainly what I do in the classroom; students still raise their hand to ask to go to the restroom.” Jeanette rings a bell to let the students know it is time to come back to the computer after breaks or recess, but it is not always easy. When she calls the students back, sometimes they do not turn their cameras back on, or they come back with toys from their room, or sometimes they are on their bed. One day, she rang the bell to tell the students recess was over and a students’ huge German Shepherd dog jumped up on the chair and steadily peered directly into the camera, seemingly ready for instruction prior to the student arriving. “I have also seen numerous adorable cats wanting to be on camera and join our sessions,” Jeanette laughs, saying, I think to myself, “How many are on my roster list again? I feel like I’m in uncharted water sometimes; it feels like I’m building the ship as I’m sailing it.”
She says the good thing about online teaching is there is more parent involvement. The parents are usually sitting near their children, walking by them, or are close by so they know what is going on in the classroom. The drawback to this is that Jeanette cannot be physically next to the students to catch their mistakes or to see their work in order to give helpful, positive immediate feedback. Jeanette says the online school sometimes shows a little glimpse into their family life, since she is virtually in their homes.
Back to school night, parent teacher conferences, Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), grade level meetings and staff meetings are still happening, but via Zoom. Every two weeks, the children have “trunk trades,” where they and their parents drop off their old work and pick up their new work from teachers—all from the safety of their cars. The students were given access to Chrome Books, and there is tech support available for them just in case a problem occurs. Jeanette says Bonita Unified School District administration is doing an excellent job in helping the students and staff during this difficult time.
Jeanette says she likes that she teaches from her classroom, but still runs the risk of contracting Covid-19 because she has to enter the office to check her box and has encounters with other faculty members from a social distance. She likes that she has the opportunity to teach from her classroom because not only does she have all the necessary equipment such as a Hover camera, a Webcam and a powerful desk computer, she also has fewer distractions than being at home. Plus, when she is at home with her two children and a husband, the Spectrum internet bandwidth is stretched thin since everyone in her house is engaged in school classes using the WiFi. She is used to being in her classroom, albeit it is empty of children, it is still a familiar and comfortable place to be when teaching. Jeanette says she is grateful to be able to continue teaching our future generation during these unprecedented times.
Danielle Eubank, multimedia professor at the University of La Verne, says she has gotten more comfortable with using Zoom and has seen a rise in participation now than when it all started. “I feel really lucky because I’ve been working with computers all my life, and I like computers.”
When the world shifted, everyone was down and not focused, which made participation go down. Danielle says it was hard because she gets inspiration from students when they share their ideas, have questions and are more engaging when in person. Danielle would prefer to be in the classroom because she can show her students hands-on how complicated software programs work. In pandemic lockdown, she sends her students how-to videos that she makes. She says that can be a benefit because people can work at their own pace and go back in the video if they do not fully understand it. Since everyone learns at different speeds, the videos help students understand at their own pace. Danielle says some people are oral learners, some people learn by reading, and some learn by doing. “You can’t make everyone happy because everyone learns differently,” she says. Unfortunately, some students don’t have computers that can download the correct software, but she adjusts accordingly to students who do not have that access. The University of La Verne has accommodated students with loaner equipment that has helped in the hardware area. Spring Semester 2021, Danielle has seen an increase in students getting access to computers and downloadable software. She prefers her students to have their cameras on during Zoom because it feels like she’s talking to an empty space when they are off, but she understands that not everyone has the perfect household that can do that.
Kate Jackson, a language arts and English language development teacher at Centennial High School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District has been teaching for 16 years as a full-time educator. She balances both being a mom of two boys and a high school teacher. Kate appreciates her own children’s teachers for helping guide them since she gets so drained by the end of the teaching day. A typical day for Kate is waking up at 6 a.m., grabbing a cup of coffee and opening up her computer by 6:30 a.m. to see whether any of her students checked in with her.
She logs into Zoom by 7:40 a.m., and gives her students 10 minutes to log into Zoom. The students take a digital attendance, and she gives them the opportunity to check Canvas. She has block schedules until noon; then she goes into an hour lunch break and holds her office hours. Kate considers herself tech-savvy, and she helped train hundreds of teachers on how to use the technology and students as well. She says this semester has been the most unusual year and calls it “pandemic schooling.”
Kate says taking a class online or virtually is different from taking a class on-line during a pandemic because you deal with much more emotionally and mentally. Kate says she has seen more students come to her about depression, struggles and anxiety than she has ever seen before. Some of her students have figured out on-line school, and others have a hard time figuring out the software and are struggling. Some of the students who are struggling were strong in the classroom, but this year has been a battle for them. These students are experiencing depression and anxiety. The students are handling much more than their school work; one student helps her younger siblings with their work and has a hard time focusing on her own school work. “I love my students. We formed a community. We’re going through this together, and because of that there is a special bond that we have.” Often, it is hard to form a bond with some students because they do not turn their Zoom cameras on, and it is hard to engage with them.
Kate sees so many students wanting to go back into the classroom so they can have their high school experience. She says that building a relationship with the students and having a routine is really important. She says you cannot replicate in-person schooling to on-line schooling. “Building a community and relationship with students has allowed students to feel comfortable talking to me about their anxiety and possible depression. Encouraging students to reach out helps them feel comfortable with what is going on. What has been hard during this semester is having the students turn their cameras on and feel more comfortable engaging in discussion.” She says high school already has those social pressures of fitting in, and that is what pushes students back from engaging in class and turning their cameras on. Her district does not force the students to have the cameras on, so she builds other ways of engagement that do not require students to turn their camera on. She has students do frequent check-ins in the chat and employs different tools where they can make their work interactive so she can see how they are doing.
Kate says she loves working with teenagers and imagining what their futures will be like. She says she believes the work she does now will impact their futures, and they could positively look back on this episode and find teachers who made a big difference in their lives. Kate says she will personally look back and realize that this experience has made her a better teacher. It made her realize more clearly how much goes on in students’ lives such as their jobs, friendships, family lives and relationships.
The pandemic has brought many impactful changes and allowed society to gain a greater appreciation for teachers. They have great patience, creativity and skill to teach many students online, even though the emergency situation came on virtually with no warning. “I’m a better teacher because of this; I have learned how to reach students who are distracted online. I have taught myself complicated technology with district support. But I’m looking forward to the return of normalcy,” says Jeanette Keeler. “There are some things I like about teaching online, but it doesn’t compare to the things about teaching in person that I love even better.”