Teaching During COVID-19

By: Diana Lavery, Director of Marketing & Sales Research, GattiHR

I sat down with a local elementary school teacher, Stefanie Gardner, who is an assistant teacher for the 4th grade at Graham & Parks Elementary School located in Cambridge, MA. Graham & Parks is a school with language-based learning disabilities classrooms for grades 3-5, offers General Education classes that are full-inclusion, and is home to sheltered English immersion classrooms for every grade level. Cambridge is about 2 miles north of downtown Boston and is often associated with the Ivy League universities Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Elementary schools in Cambridge often don’t follow the stereotype Ivy Leagues carry because local students in Cambridge come from diverse economic, racial, cultural and social backgrounds, all of which teachers like Stefanie must take into account during this difficult time.

Thank you to all teachers, and especially Stefanie, for your never-ending support of today’s students, both in the classroom and at home.

What is the current operating status of your school?

As of April 21, 2020, the Governor of Massachusetts closed schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, so we are following the state guidelines and are doing remote teaching.

What does an average day for one of your students look like now?

Remote learning has been an interesting experience for our children. Some students wake up early and finish academics before noon. Others prefer to do work in during the late-morning or early-afternoon. The work itself is the same for all students, and it’s been helpful for them to have routines. They log on to Google Classroom and review the ‘Daily Slideshow.’ On the slideshow, they find Math, Reading, Writing, and bonus subjects like P.E. or Music. We have video calls on Mondays and Thursdays with students where we host Morning Meeting. These meetings are the highlights of their week because the peer interaction is so fulfilling! Students get to share what’s happening in their lives as well as share work they’re proud of. It’s also a special opportunity for teachers to add some review and teaching time to the end of the Morning Meeting.

How has your day-to-day schedule and objectives as a teacher changed since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak?

Since school closures were announced, it was hard to envision my job becoming virtual. So much of what I do is the nitty gritty–taking students on body breaks, helping solve friendship problems, helping escalated students, and offering one-on-one support is normally what fills my day-to-day life as a teacher. Removing those social dynamics completely changes what my life looks like. Now, my days are filled with answering questions on Google Classroom, creating content to keep students engaged, and hopping on video calls to problem solve with staff and students. The days are much less busy for me because I follow the lead of the head teacher, but I miss having my days fly by with conversations with students and constant movement of classroom life.

What kind of role is technology playing now, and how has its role changed?

Technological literacy has been huge for our students during this time. I think we often feel like we want space from technology so students can stay engaged with human connection, but teaching students how to access technology is so important as we’ve seen over the past month! Graham and Parks is part of Cambridge Public School District. Our district is incredibly blessed with resources, and one of those resources is that every 3rd through 5th grader has their own Chromebook. We usually keep them in a cart at school and take them out for projects, but before schools closed, we sent the Chromebooks home with each student. It has been huge for students to be able to stay connected with their community and complete work remotely! Our district has made sure that every student has access to internet as well. This has been a huge part of student’s accessing work online. The diligence and constant work of our community has been amazing to see. Mobilizing in the midst of a crisis comes with many challenges, but despite the hiccups we faced, we moved quickly to ensure students’ needs were met!

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

Every educator is facing such different challenges right now. For some, being a parent and teacher all at once is proving to be incredibly difficult. Some educators are working into the night because that is when their kids are asleep. Some educators are unable to reach students despite persistent communication. I’m lucky that my challenges are so minimal. The biggest personal challenge is missing my students. We go into this profession because we want to work with kids. We want to be in their lives and be someone that cares for them deeply, so miss my daily interactions. One student hugs me every day, another student goes on body breaks with me so that they can stay engaged with their learning, another student steps up every time I need help with a task, another talks to me about his cats and why he loves them. These little details and who they are as people are what I miss most. I consider it a privilege to be facing so few challenges and I mostly just want to be a support to my lead teacher in any way I can!

Has anything actually remained normal for you as a teacher and for your students?

So much feels different about what we do. I miss all of the in between moments that I experience as an assistant teacher. One thing that remains the same is that those who struggled with attention or struggled in a certain subject are still in that position during remote learning. All of the behaviors and learning disabilities don’t disappear just because they are in the comfort of their home. The same students who struggle within school struggle to access technology outside of school. It’s a good reminder that we need to practice those same social-emotional skills that we do in school and offer one-to-one support to students who need to help accessing the curriculum. The trust students have in their teachers and all of that relationship building we’ve done over the past months is even more important now that we are doing remote learning!

What do you see the Fall 2020 school year looking like? Do you see things going back to normal quickly?

Fall 2020 feels really hopeful to me. It feels like a chance to start anew, to appreciate one another in a better way, and to not take the day-to-day life of a teacher for granted. The students will need time to talk about what they experienced and time to process what this means for them. In many ways, though they’ll be in new classes and a new grade, they’re still mentally going to be in their previous grade. We’ll need to address this and remember that skills won’t come as naturally as we expect them to. Patience will be the most important thing for teachers and students to cling to in Fall of 2020. We’ll need to be patient and kind, leaving room to process and grow.

Do you see a silver lining to this situation?

One silver lining is that I don’t think I will be the same educator next year as I was this year. I want to challenge myself to practice an insane amount of empathy next year. I want to remember who couldn’t access materials, who didn’t get to go outside during the entire pandemic, who struggled through each assignment. I want that ingrained in my mind so that I never forget who needs help and what they need help with. I want all of this to make me a more compassionate teacher and human being.

What do you want everyone to know?

If I could tell everyone something, it would be that we’re in this together. It’s a cheesy phrase, but I really mean that – whether in school or out of school, whether schools are closed during summer or because of a pandemic, we need to be a team. Families, teachers, the school district – we all need to remember that we are better when we support our children together. Being “in this together” means having empathy for one another, practicing patience, and trying to choose relationship over rules. We’re in this together to love our kids.