BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DOROTHEA HACKETT
For years, teachers have been told: “Be sure to differentiate your instruction.” “Individualization is key to reaching the students to provide the optimum learning environment.” We have heard it again and again. We believe it. The problem: how to make that happen effectively in a class of 30 high school freshmen.
Then along came Corona. Overnight, this changed what we have called education for years. How would we reach our students both educationally and socially/emotionally? The scramble began to provide the optimum learning environment to all of our students. Wait! We knew we had heard those words somewhere before.
My district may be more fortunate than others. When COVID-19 closed our school, we faced the issue of equity: internet and technology access. We are officially in a “town: remote” according to the state. However, when I can see cows in pastures on my way to school, and some students need to ride the bus for 45 minutes to get to school, I consider that rural. Due to the economically depressed area in which we live - even prior to COVID-19, many families do not have internet access or the devices to use that access. Our district gathered devices from all buildings and distributed them, along with district-purchased jet pack hot spots, to all families in need. Tech access? Check!
When the academics restarted, I was confident that my freshmen and AP English students would make the transition seamlessly because I had used Google Classroom and various other platforms throughout the year. That indeed was the case. Smooth sailing for me and for my students. We had this.
Now that we are weeks into this learning platform, I have had time to reflect on my students’ learning. I choose not to hold “officially scheduled” office hours through Google Meet since other teachers rely on those. I choose the “email me whenever you need me” method, and many different students email me daily with questions or ways to improve their assignments. Now it has hit me. I am truly differentiating! I am providing that individualized instruction that educators find so valuable! I am able to do it successfully because, serendipitously, I am exclusively using an online platform to deliver my instruction, my assignments, and, most importantly, my feedback. When students need face-to-face support, I can schedule with a small group without wondering if the other 25 will interrupt the learning scenario. With the online platform, they don’t. I am available to help that individual or small group uninterrupted by others.
A big difference I see occurs in discussion protocols. In the physical classroom, the students discuss in whole group or small groups. Even though I circulate among the groups, there still seem to be some students who hide in the shadows of the discussions. Since the change to all online discussion, I can schedule a specific small group of students for a discussion and “eavesdrop” on that discussion for the entire time period. I can vary the student groups and schedule students according to their individual needs staying with that group to assess their progress in meeting that need. In the physical classroom, I would lose this concentrated period of time believing that I would need to move to the next group to ensure contact with all students in a period. I see all students engaged in this type of discussion. Google Meet has no shadows.
Another difference I see is in students’ writing. I frequently assess comprehension through written responses/reactions to texts. When I ask for a written submission in the physical classroom, some students rely on others for ideas and then reiterate those students’ contributions.When they receive the graded response, they look at the grade - completely ignoring the feedback - and put the response in their notebooks never to be seen again. In online learning, I receive a unique response from every student. With this submission, I am able to assess both comprehension and writing skills. I am able to post individualized feedback for the students’ metacognitive opportunities. I continue to pose revision and metacognitive questions targeted to each student’s needs which forces a return to revision. For reference, I also post Mentor texts that target the students’ needs and direct students to what aspects of that text will enhance their particular writing skills. Students are more willing to revise their digital copies since the rewriting is less time consuming with copy, cut, and paste.(We are not a 1:1 school so most physical school writing is hard copy on paper.) In addition, I am just an email away if a student needs to reach out. I can spend as long as necessary without others getting impatient for my attention, therefore, providing that truly differentiated and individualized instruction.
COVID-19 has presented our state and our country with a multitude of challenges that we would not prefer to meet ever again. However, the success that my students and I have experience with differentiation and individualized instruction challenges me to find similar ways to make this work when we return. Yes, Corona has changed education, but, in some aspects, for the better.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DANIEL WOLESLAGLE
What’s Wrong with PD?
Professional development, the cornerstone of any well-functioning school system, and an indispensable part of keeping up with a world that is moving exponentially faster each year. As we begin to integrate 21st Century Learning Design into our schools, I am often left to wonder, “Why aren’t our teachers learning the same way?”
I believe that I, like most other teachers, am on a constant quest to update my skill set with the best possible tools for my students to be successful. While my classroom may function like a real-world simulation full of project based learning and successful technology integration, the professional development sessions that I often attend function more like they are run by Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Review the data?...Review the data?...Bueller?
I believe that I am much like Frodo of the Shire. I have taken up the mantle of the unknown adventure, and I set out to teach professionals like students. Along the way, I discovered three “quests” for great PD and, unlike our friendly hobbit, never plan on returning to the old ways.
So let’s examine professional development from the lens of a classroom teacher. As any first year teacher would tell you, students are only capable of learning when they are engaged. Once I really thought about this, I realized that I was often being taught strategies on how to engage students in deep learning by never allowing myself to stand at the board and lecture by someone standing at the board and lecturing me. After some retooling and a lot of going back to the drawing board, I have personalized the learning for each student in my classroom. In professional development we need to build time in for teachers to be able to learn, build and practice the necessary skills that are most relevant to them in a safe and structured environment. There is no better time to do this than when the information is fresh in our minds. It is because of this that I make sure that every session that I am involved in allows at least half of the time scheduled primarily for teachers to work.
Now that we have teachers who were eager to learn and who have had the time given to them to figure out what they need specifically, the next step is to get them to apply it in the classroom itself. After all, new ideas are only valuable if they can actually be implemented.
Well, I don’t know about you, but time is about the most valuable commodity that I have as an educator. If we are spending time training educators, we should have an expectation that they are using that training. Otherwise, was it really worth training everyone on?
Every training should, without exception, end with educators having a plan of how they will be implementing the skills or tools that they have just learned in their classrooms and schools the next day, week, month and year. This is how we will know that they have truly understood the information.
Now, the difficult part. Just as with 21st Century Learning, the outcomes for modern professional development should not be the same. Each person will have their own unique perspective, ideas and style that they bring to the table. We will ensure that learning has taken place and everyone is getting a maximum return for their time. After all, you don’t walk all the way to Mordor just to go home.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a team to run a school. Allow professionals to forge the fires of learning and create their own professional development based on what they are using in their classes. Create teams, build lessons, explore new ideas and encourage professionals to be the leaders in their own development. This is how 21st century learning leads to 21st century ideas.
BLOG POST BY 2020-21 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Each week, PA Teacher of the Year Joe Welch will be sharing his experiences and thoughts as we all work through the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His pieces are cross-posted from his personal blog, Inclined to Teach.
For millions of students and teachers around the nation, the news has become official. We will not be returning to our home away from home. Our school. Our classroom. Our students. With that news, we are now immersed in this system of crisis teaching and learning for the long run. For six weeks, we have been able to show the world what makes teachers great. We don’t make excuses. We adapt for our students and families. We solve problems for our students. We connect with our students. We support each other. We counsel. We advocate. And we are not afraid to learn new skills.
I have recently heard politicians, doctors, and media members repeatedly refer to the response to COVID-19 with a similar term: a marathon. Terms like steady, pacing, and one step at a time have been tossed out into the public discourse, too, when discussing how the world will overcome this latest obstacle. Marathon terms.
Now, it’s been 8 years since I ran my first full marathon. It was May 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be exact. And when you are training for your first marathon, there are tedious times, times of joy, times of pain, times of frustration, times when you are alone for long periods, and undoubtedly, times of mental and physical exhaustion. You think you can do it. You know you can do it. Then, you think you just can’t run another mile, another half mile, or another step. You run the full gauntlet of emotions before you even get to the starting line for such a race. But you get to that starting line.
Ironically it was on the treadmill when a piece of advice came back into my mind. And it is advice that is there for the teachers out there who are trying their best day in day out to be there for their students, the parents and guardians who are trying to maintain a safe and supportive environment while being pulled in a plethora of directions, and the students who are coping with a loss of all sense of normalcy in this world. The survivor shuffle.
It was on my first "20 miler" when I heard this advice. The survivor shuffle? An experienced runner shared that there will be times when you need to use the survivor shuffle, times when you drop your pacing goals, trust what your body and mind is telling you, and just do your best to keep your feet moving forward. The survivor shuffle, huh? You set out to finish what you started for all the reasons you signed up to start it. It may not look like what you planned, what you envisioned, what you dreamed about, but you survive. You take a quick rest, you get a drink, and you get back in the race when you are ready. One foot in front of the other, and you get there.
But no, I did not want to hear about the survivor shuffle. I would not need it; I went into my first marathon overconfident. Then, everything changed. For me, it was hot, humid morning that came out of nowhere. This was not the race I was prepared to run. However, I started to run it as if it was under the exact same conditions that I trained for. And I broke down physically.
Now let’s fast forward to 2020. We had field trips planned. Traditions to carry on. Moments and students to celebrate. Colleagues to rejoice with as they entered into well-deserved retirements. Then March 13th came. We did not prepare for this sort of race. This was not our training as a teacher, as a parent, or as a student. Personally, I started into this race trying to maintain the same pace that I had before everything changed. As a parent, as a teacher, and quite frankly, I even had a desire for my children to do the same as students. Not surprisingly, I had the same result as my first marathon. I was insistent on “winning that race” in the first mile.
But you can’t. You shouldn’t. And here is the part that was the most difficult thing for me to understand and accept: nobody expects you to maintain the same pace you had before. What is going to save me as a teacher? The survivor shuffle. As a parent? The survivor shuffle. And I hope students around the nation recognize that it is perfectly okay to "run your own race" at this time and trust what your body, your mind, and your heart are telling you to do.
Conditions have changed. Take a rest when you need to. Look to others for encouragement and support when you think you just can’t do it. There will be more obstacles ahead for each of us. It’s okay to save a little in the tank for when you need it. In a marathon, you find things out about yourself that you never knew you could do. You deal with setbacks, both within and outside of your control. You push the limits of what you thought your mind and your body could handle. But you just never know when you are going to need that survival shuffle to slow the pace, reassess what is most important, and to get help when you need it. There is no shame in using it.
Students, parents, and teachers: It’s okay to just do what you can do, at the pace that you can go in that moment. It really is. Just get back into this race when you’re ready.
Blog Post by PTAC MEMBER Anthony Grisillo
I had to spend seven hours in my school library packing up my Spring Book Fair this year. Usually this is a team effort, but this year it was a solitary task. A total of five classes visited the Fair along with several parents and families during their parent-teacher conferences. I go all in with my Book Fair. I decorate my library with the help of students, creating an exciting feeling that was only experienced by less than 25% of my school. School was closed just as the Fair began. Cleaning up this particular Fair was one of the most depressing moments I have experienced as a teacher in my 22 years of teaching. I know it is just a Book Fair, but it felt like much more than that.
I couldn't help thinking of all my students at home, social distancing with their families, many kids disappointed that they missed their time at the Fair. I had a box of books that had been ordered by students which had arrived just before our building was shut down. I decided to hand deliver these books to the kids myself, calling each family first to make sure they would be home. My plan was the drop and dash like a magical book fairy leaving treats in the night. It didn't work out that way.
At each house I found people eager to talk, to interact. There was no quick drop off. Everyone was hungry for time with an outsider to their isolation. I found myself sharing survival tips with each delivery. Never sure how to end the conversation other than having more deliveries to make, each visit reminded me of phone calls with a girlfriend in high school -- neither one of us wanting to hang up. At one stop I heard, "Mr. G! It's Mr. G! He's actually here!" from the neighbor's yard as another student saw me. She was hanging out with a third student virtually on a phone.
Students need us.
Smack dab in the middle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a sense of belonging and love. Our students and their families get these feelings from their school community. Our schools, which are now the shuttered buildings we cannot visit, bring smiles to many people. But these feelings are not the physical space. Rather, they are part of the culture the faculty and staff nurtures in those buildings, something that no automated teaching resource can replicate.
In this time of isolation, teachers need to be the reminder of a sense of belonging because we are all in this together. Our students and families need to know we miss and love them. This is our passion. This is why we chose this profession. And at this time of distancing, we need to help people feel connected by bringing that culture to our students and families by any means available to us.
Virtual facetime with our students has become invaluable. Seeing their excitement when they interact with us via Meet, Zoom, or Skype is a highlight to their experiences. It does not replace the in-person interactions from our physical classroom, but it does start to provide an ability to maintain our school’s culture. New skills are learned, replacing the “Anthony, can you please take your seat?” with the “Anthony, can you please mute your microphone?”. These moments also give our students’ families a glimpse into how much we care about their children. They can see the enthusiasm that we bring to our craft. It offers a glimpse into the art of teaching that families rarely get to see during a normal school year.
I wish I could go around and just say hello to all of my students at their houses. It would be awesome to surprise each of them with a live appearance by someone other than their immediate family. Our students need to see that we miss them and that we are thinking about them. We need to be a reminder of the third level of Maslow. We need to be that connection to what was normal and that glimmer of promise that this too shall pass and we will still be there for them in the end because we never left.
BLOG POST BY PTAC BOARD MEMBER KAREY KILLIAN
The challenge of starting something new, like teaching in a virtual environment can be exciting. That excitement quickly disappears if one’s access to the internet is limited. In some homes across the Commonwealth, high-speed, broadband internet isn’t an option. In my rural area, cable is not available and “unlimited” internet gets throttled just a few days into the new cycle. I don’t know much about megabytes and kilobits, but, as a teacher and a parent who is reliant on internet, receiving this message from the internet provider feels like a punch in the gut:
“You’re all out of high-speed hotspot...Your mobile hotspot data speed has been reduced, so you’ll get up to 600kbps for the rest of the billing cycle (the next 19 days).”
What does this look like and sound like in our home? Streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are taboo in this household. We are thankful that we have DVDs and a few VHS relics to watch on family movie nights. When the frustration levels increase because websites are taking too long to load, we turn off the devices and play a game together. This was easier to do when school work wasn’t mandatory. Now that our two girls are expected to complete graded assignments, and I’m expected to submit classwork for my 900 students, we’re trying to find innovative ways to manage the data.
Managing data usage requires constant communication about what needs to be done for each person. Our 2nd-grade daughter uses a laptop connected to my husband’s hotspot on his phone. She uses about 4GB of data each day with the required videos and activities that her teacher has thoughtfully prepared for six classes. We have about 15GB of data per device and if you do the math, we have enough for 2-3 weeks. Our daughter in 11th grade uses the school issued iPad and connects to her phone if the home hotspot is too slow for her 10 classes. Her school, looking to create solutions, gave us a hotspot to use. Unfortunately, like in many other rural areas of Pennsylvania, it doesn’t work because there isn’t any service with that provider where we live.
Strategies that work for our family:
Moving forward, we realize that at some point this month we may not have any internet connection. I’m trying to prepare lessons that will last for my students in the event that I won’t be able to connect with them from home. We have spent a great deal of time and money trying to figure out how we can get better internet access for our family. We haven’t been able to find a solution that can keep up with the increased demands for all of us in this virtual learning environment from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing many inequities in our education system. There are many other teachers and families across the state who are in the same situation that we are. If we believe that education is opportunity, and that opportunity should be provided to all, then we must try to find solutions that ensure every student has access to high-speed internet - during this period of remote learning and in the future.
BLOG POST BY PTAC PRESIDENT MAIRI COOPER
April 9, 2020
My dearest seniors,
As soon as I heard the news this morning that Pennsylvania schools were closed for the year, my thoughts raced to you. Your individual faces and spirits filled a collage in my mind's eye. In a sudden surge, I heard the sounds of the past four years; your laughter, your questions, your indignation and most importantly, your many stories. Dahlia. Evan. Amelia.
Why do I feel this grief for you so profoundly? As I was packing up my office a month ago, I thought that this day might come. The virus had revealed its power in other countries and more than anything I just wanted all of you to be safe. I remember thinking, “it would be worse to miss this part of college.” But would it? Claire. Noah. Gwen.
Now is supposed to be your time. Most of you have solidified your plans for next year. You have begun to dream of your future steps and how they will shape you. When I first met you as freshmen, you were only starting to become the spectacular humans that currently grace my life. You were less secure, less thoughtful and, yes, less funny. All of the ingredients for who you would become were there, but the recipe had yet to come together. Only now, as second-semester seniors, have you realized that potential. You do not only step into the light, you have learned in so many ways, how to create it. Emily. Oskar. Eliza.
I am mourning the loss of spending the next two months celebrating with you. More important than accruing a fabulous GPA, excelling on standardized tests or playing the perfect concert or game, high school is about finding your identity. For the past four years, your teachers have embarked on a journey with you to help you shape the person that you have become. We have laughed with you, answered your questions, endured your indignation, and loved your many stories. And now, we want more than anything to applaud your growth, cheer your success and share your dreams for the future. Felix. Sophie. Gavin.
You began to process the possibility that we would not end the year together. It’s all the little things that we are missing…the elimination game, the picnic, the day to wear of college gear. I just want to play the Haydn. I have waited four years to be the one to turn out the light last. You have earned these rites of passage and we will try to honor as many of them as possible. It is important for you to experience these so that you may run with open arms and hearts into the next chapter of your lives. Sydney. Keith. Zeynep.
However, for now, know this. I am not done with you. Even if I am miles away or behind a computer screen, my heart and every ounce of my energy soars to you. I am so proud of who you are and am not letting go of the time that I have left with you. You will not always be my students, but you will always be my inspiration. Izzy. Lukas. Cuna.
I love you,
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER MISSY HALCOTT
What if we could reimagine schools? What would we do if standardized tests and grades weren't a thing? What would we, as educators, prioritize and what would we discard?
COVID-19 has humbled schools, shut their doors, and sent children to their homes to shelter; but it has not ended learning. Instead, I dare say that COVID-19 may yet revolutionize how schools run and how learning takes place for years to come.
Instead of allowing this pandemic to put an end to learning opportunities, educators have scrambled to make remote learning opportunities available to learners all over Pennsylvania. Educators have scrambled to establish connections, revitalize the relationships between families and schools, and not allow the shut down of their brick and mortar schools to shut down their efforts to educate.
Providing families with meals, technology, and supplies needed for success during this pandemic has served to center our districts as the hubs of our communities and cemented partnerships that will not easily be severed once we return to "normalcy” -whatever the new "norm" may be post COVID-19.
Without the pressure to perform and be evaluated by their students' performance on state assessments, educators have taken risks, failed forward to better engage their learners in new and untraditional ways, and exercised grace with themselves and their colleagues when these new endeavors have fallen short of perfection. Teachers are embracing opportunities to attend professional development, supporting one another in their endeavors to provide support for student growth, and implementing new learning tools and strategies to allow them to see and connect with their students despite closures.
Once this pandemic passes, it is my hope that our priorities in public education will have permanently shifted. I hope we embrace and foster these renewed partnerships between home and schools. I hope we continue to value efforts to innovate over celebrating standardized success. Most importantly, I hope we retain our focus on keeping relationships at the forefront of our educational practices. After all we've experienced and endured in the first three months of this year, I feel we will remember 2020 as the year education's purpose and vision got a whole lot clearer for all who serve and are served by our schools.
BLOG POST BY 2020-21 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Each week, PA Teacher of the Year Joe Welch will be sharing his experiences and thoughts as we all work through the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His pieces are cross-posted from his personal blog, Inclined to Teach.
“Dad.” “Dad.” “Dad.” “Dad.”….”Dad.” “Dad.” …”Daddy.” “Dad.” (There were a few more Dads in there, but, you get the idea.) This past weekend, my preschool-aged son, Noah, was trying to get my attention. He had to have called out my name at least a dozen times before I even acknowledged him. Sure, I was sitting with him on our back porch, pretending to pay close attention to him as he played with PlayDoh and I typed an e-mail back to a parent on Saturday afternoon to solve an issue her child was having in the new virtual learning world.
Then, it hit me. That wave of parent guilt that many teachers feel on a regular basis during the school year. Perhaps it is when we are staying after school to get caught up, or when we attend weekend activities with our students and miss a family function, or, quite frankly, when we are spending more time with other people’s children than our own. But, there’s no way that can happen in a virtual learning environment, right? Wrong. There is no sidewalk to walk out of school now, no time to reflect and change gears on the car ride home, no bells or goodbyes to signal a change.
This year, I have 109 students on my roster. 109 students with different interests, family lives, abilities, needs, personalities, and talents. But, it is the 110th and 111th students on my roster that are often being ignored as a result of attempting to be fully available and committed to students 1 to 109, as well as their parents, during this crisis.
Enter my preschooler and 1st grader. They see me on Zoom meetings with my students, laughing, smiling, and teaching. I’m sure that they hear me telling them “wait one minute, buddy” or “hold on, my dude” in exchange for not having to have one of my students wait at all for an e-mail reply. When they think back to this crisis 5 years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, are they doing to think back to this period and remember that “daddy did not spend much time with us”? That keeps me up at night.
My children are younger, and love attention from their parents. But for those teachers with older children, I am sure, even if they do not admit it or are masking it, are craving your connection during this crisis. But, this leads to the ultimate choice of having to knowingly or unknowingly select teacher guilt or parent guilt. So how do you balance these two? Honestly, that is something that has always been an area of potential growth for me and an area that I am struggling with now. For me, the easy choice over the past three weeks has been selecting parent guilt. Because I think, “oh, there will be more time for me to be with my children after this e-mail, after I make this screencast video, afterI do this demo video for an administrator, or after I talk a colleague through something on the phone instead of sitting down to read a story one on one to my child.”
So, teacher guilt vs. parent guilt, what’s the solution to feel neither and to make yourself fully committed to both in a virtual environment? Being a realist, I do not think I will be able to discover the solution to this in my blog entry. In fact, I think, to a large degree, that merging both lives enables me to be a better teacher, connect with analogies and lessons from my own life, and to let my guard down for students to see the real me. But, in this virtual setting, I am finding a whole new ballgame and I am going to implement a few changes that I feel may help.
1. Set a more clearly defined schedule, write it down, and schedule your children in there.
I have been guilty of keeping my agenda for office hours, meetings, and every different type of Zoom meeting on my computer. What is not on my calendar is any type of defined time for my own children or time with my wife. That is going to change, and, I feel that if I “see” it on a schedule, I will be better equipped to follow that commitment.
2. Build that sidewalk away from school in your mind.
Let’s be honest with each other. We enjoy teaching, so we find excuses in our minds to always be looking to bring our own lives into our lessons or vice versa. But, in this virtual world, there has to be a limit of a boundary. I am going to allow myself to work at night, however, will have to put some time restraints on myself to cap that. Can this wait until the morning? Will not responding right now cause emotional stress for that student?
3. Learn from Oklahoma! character Ado Annie.
I grew up as a musical theater boy. In fact, in 8th grade, I got to be part of our high school’s production of Oklahoma!(we had a small school and boys in grades 7-8 were needed as townspeople…) But, I remember a song in there that I am now using out of context, but, it is titled I Cain’t Say No. So, when we hear that phrase, “Hey, can you do me a favor?” or “Hey, it would be great if somebody…”, we gravitate towards filling that need. We can’t say no, we want to help. But, I need to remind myself, that it is indeed okay to say no, because, that will better enable me to say yes to my children.
4. When you hear a colleague say “I’m bored”, let it go.
Bored? Bored?!?!? Just this week, I heard another colleague, a good friend, say that he was bored. This is the complete opposite of what I had been feeling. I feel like I am playing a game of whack-a-mole. So, I think, “What in the world am I doing wrong that I am not feeling this bored feeling? I had a to-do list of things I would like to get done during this and I have not touched one of them. I must be the worst parent in the world if I am having trouble spending time with my own children, let alone crossing items of my to-do list.” So my takeaway: everyone is dealing with this crisis in their own way and has their own situation and responsibilities.
I look forward to making this a focus of mine to work on in the coming days, weeks, and months ahead. I also welcome any advice, tips, or strategies that have been working for you in your own situations. We’re off to check out the Pink Super Moon as a family!
BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
While we all try to navigate the new educational landscape we find ourselves in, the most important thing to remember is perhaps the most obvious: It is not the old educational landscape.
This may seem painfully apparent to you right now, but are you really accepting that fact, deep down? As my district begins to move into online learning modes, I, along with several of my colleagues, have wondered how we could pick up the old pace, teach all that needs to be taught, and learn every possible online platform while planning for full lessons.
This is, of course, impossible. The old pace is gone, along with the dreams of what we had planned to cover this year. And we are slowly, stumblingly, finding our way around a website here, a Zoom meeting there. We are stunned, confused, and overwhelmed. And that’s just at the intellectual level. Emotionally, we are heartbroken and terrified.
Everything is different, and we have to learn to let it all go. Samantha Neill, a member of the Kansas Teacher Taskforce, said it best when she visited PTAC last week: “This is not regular ed. It’s emergency ed.” We are not sailing along in the third quarter of our former classrooms. We’re clinging to life rafts in some kind of time-warp.
This is especially difficult for teachers because we absolutely need to be good at our jobs. We became teachers because we know what it means to change lives through helping kids grow. We are passionate, committed professionals. We are experts, both in our content and in our pedagogy. And on top of all this, many of us are perfectionists. We like planning, preparing, organizing, and generally controlling our worlds. It’s what makes us so good. It’s why teaching is such a perfect fit for us.
We’re used to giving 100%, and we’re used to seeing some returns on that effort. We wrote, and rewrote, curriculum. We planned out the space of our classrooms to reflect our educational philosophies and most efficient learning strategies. We had reading corners, math stations, and collaboration tables. We curated books for classroom libraries and created all manner of materials.
And now? The physical space is gone. The curriculum is up in the air. Many of us do not yet have the green light to assign or assess anything. We’re still giving 100%—I’m exhausted at the end of each day—but I’m not sure where or how. And many of us are teaching our own children at home or caring for family members. Everything feels jumbled. Our former lives of defined spaces and predictable bells have disappeared.
We feel robbed of the currency that once defined us—our ability to command a group, to connect one-on-one, to juggle 50 tasks at once, to plan a great lesson and execute it, to attend a meeting and then teach and then grade, to create the space for those quiet, miraculous moments when a student understands something new. This what we were trained to do and what we have honed through experience. True, these things can theoretically happen online, but how? In what form?
I am incredibly sad at the loss of all this. And yet I know I must let it go. I know I must practice compassion as I work through the excruciating acceptance of our new reality, but it’s difficult. I have found myself telling myself, and others, “It’s okay, go slow, go easy on yourself. Lower the bar.” Lower the bar? Go easy on myself? These are thoughts I would have never permitted before March 13th. It pains me to think them.
But this is exactly what we must do. As good as we are, we must scale back. We must let go of the need to control that makes us so effective. It feels unnatural and wrong. It feels like cheating. But we have no choice if we are to care for our students and ourselves in the way that is needed during this scary, agonizing time. This is not regular education; it’s emergency education.
We can perhaps take this time to reflect on our very identity as teachers and people. Now that it feels like we’ve lost everything as teachers, who are we? What kind of teacher am I without my beloved whiteboard and bean bagged reading corner? Who am I without my colored folders and organized bins? When all is taken away, what is left of this teacher-self I have so carefully created? And how can that essential self, stripped of all its bells and whistles, connect with students, who are also feeling incredibly vulnerable and alone?
These are the questions I will be contemplating. For me, the answers have to do with a conviction about how learning creates better human beings, and how literature plays a role in our understanding of ourselves as humans in a long, long line of other humans. It has to do with a belief that reading and writing can save the world. Certainly, we have not lost everything: We have our passion for learning, we have our love for students and humanity. We have each other. And we have every bit of the expertise that we have worked so hard to gain.
We will persevere. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, and mostly ineffective, it’s okay. Go slow. Cut back. Take it easy on yourself and simply be present to your students in whatever way you can. It’s alright if you’re not perfect for a while.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER COLLEEN REINER
I got a reminder on my pop-up calendar yesterday. It was letting me know that one of my students was having a birthday. I thought about the birthday box that I usually fill with markers, treats, pencils, and a few other items. We all sit around while I present the birthday box and we sing “happy birthday.” It is something that my students look forward to, that special recognition of a milestone in their life.
I have been so busy trying to get everything set up for online learning that I completely forgot his birthday! The birthday box and supplies are locked at school. Even if I had remembered, the birthday box wasn’t going to happen. The box itself and all of my birthday supplies were at school.
I know how important a birthday is to a child. It is almost as important as their name itself. An idea came to me as I was fretting about this child having to celebrate his birthday, isolated at his house, without any friends or classmates. I went on to our class SeeSaw and put a call-out to his classmates. I asked them to make cards and videos and post them to this young man. Being the administrator of the account, I was able to see all the posts. Some were homemade cards while others were videos by themselves, with pets, or with a sibling. I wouldn’t call this relationship building because their relationships started on the first day of school. It was more relationship strengthening.
Today, I watched a post by this boy. He wanted to thank all his friends for their cards, videos, and well wishes. “And yes,” he said, “I watched every one of them.” He said this with a great big, ear-to-ear, smile as I, myself, had tears in my eyes.
In this time of uncertainty, we are bumbling around trying to make sense of everything, trying to gain power over something we have no power over. We are trying to scour the internet for ideas to teach our students online and help them get the education that they need. What we should really be doing is looking at our children and asking ourselves, “What do my students need socially and emotionally? How can I help their mental health through this crisis?” Our students are experiencing death. It is death of school as they know it. It is death of the predictability of school. It is death of their school relationships. This is really traumatizing, especially to our younger learners who have no idea what is going on. To have their school close indefinitely may add stress to what some children are already dealing with at home. We need to provide opportunities to process this and move through it instead of just brushing it under the rug.
I have attended many meetings over the past few weeks. One thing is clear. We need to continue to maintain relationships with these children. I miss my students terribly and know that they miss me. I try to connect with them through email, messaging, videos on SeeSaw, and occasional Zoom meetings. I am realizing now that there is another relationship that we need to continue to nurture. It is the peer-to-peer relationship. Because of social distancing children are discouraged from play dates. Some have parents who are still working and are being ‘supervised’ by older siblings. Some of my students live in town while others live in the rural farmlands of our district. They can’t easily just talk to each other in their neighborhood and maintain a 6-foot distance between them. We are social animals and want to gather together to talk, play, and know that each of us is ok. How can we give our students the opportunity to do this?
It is hard to come up with ideas that are student to student centered. I include time in a video chat to check in with each, and every, student. I also give time for my learners to chat with each other when we are together. I encourage them to include others on their videos and posts in See Saw. I am also thinking of working on some collaborative lessons in which they will need to work together virtually.
The events in these few short months have certainly made us stop. The roadblock has been put in the road of how we know education to be. It is up to us to carve out that detour with ingenuity, creativity, passion, and perseverance that teachers possess. Priorities will change. Delivery systems will change. Education will change. But that relationship that we build with our students, and between our students will always remain steady.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee