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New Teachers Adapt to a Changing Education Landscape

Caroline Gardner

May 2020


Back in August, very few people would have been able to predict the end of the 2019-2020 school year. For millions of high school and grade school students in America, their reality is one of the unexpected. A walk from a bed to a desk or a kitchen table replaces bus rides and carpools. School uniforms matter only from the waist up and lunchtime is solitary, instead of social. Most, if not all, of the school day, is online. It is not just the students who are lamenting the loss of field day, spring sports, senior week, or the long days wandering from classroom to classroom. The lives of their teachers are drastically different as schools close, many for the rest of the year.


Teachers are responsible for a great deal in an everyday classroom setting. They monitor behavior, they make lesson plans, they explain the same math formula a dozen times, with the goals of connecting with their students and providing them quality education. When the 2019 Novel Coronavirus closed schools around the country, teachers were suddenly thrown into new roles.


Teachers were forced out of their classrooms and into completely unfamiliar terrain. Some schools, like Mason Early Childhood Center in Mason, Ohio gave the teachers two weeks of training before launching completely into online work. Excel Academy Charter School in Boston, Mass. called a half-day for their students to prepare for what they predicted would be two weeks of online education. 


Other schools, such as the Center for Inquiry in downtown Indianapolis, IN suddenly stopped classes on a Thursday and did not return to school the following day.


Libby Whiting, 22, is a first-year teacher. “They had just told us that morning that it would it could it be a possibility that we're going to like a hybrid or like at-home learning for a little while,” she said. Her kindergarten class was familiar with E-Learning days, but she had no time to prepare her students to be out of school for the rest of the year. She is also concerned about how her 5-year-old students are handling a global pandemic. 


Every grade level and age group presents a different set of challenges. The pressure to keep students on track to pass standardized tests is relatively universal regardless of age. Older students need grades, life skills, and in some cases, AP scores for their next steps, whether that is college or entering the workforce. Younger students need to continue their learning, but many teachers are struggling to explain the reason for the major disruption in the lives of their students. 


Whiting left the explanation of the pandemic to the parents of her kindergarten students by connecting her student’s parents to the proper resources and information and allowing them to choose how to communicate with their children. She said, “You're going to be pretty careful about your like wordage when talking to kids about it because it can make it seem very very scary, and then make them not want to go outside like ever again.”


Hannah, 22, is Senior at Miami University of Ohio and is finishing up her student teaching with her second graders remotely. She was also daunted by the task of explaining a pandemic to young children. “We actually talked about it like before they left and there was definitely some anxiety because they're hearing lots of different things from their parents, from media that they consume,” she said.


She also said that while there was anxiety surrounding the pandemic, “it was more of the lack of schedule,” she said. “Kids that age thrive on the schedule, and then they want to know exactly when everything like they want to know when they're going back to normal,” she said.


Charlotte Tresslar, 24, who is in her second year of teaching in Boston, MA, had similar comments about her students in high school special education physics and math. “Students in my classes really really thrive in the school’s predictable schedule,” she said. She noted a set routine is especially important for her students on the autism spectrum. Her students are older and can better understand the global pandemic. Their frustrations are more about missing prom, senior week, graduation and other rites of passages for many American teenagers. “They're all super bummed that after seven years of going to school together, they can't celebrate the end of that as a community,” said Tresslar. Tresslar said a great deal of pressure is on her students to pass the MCAS, a series of standardized tests that dictate who receives a high school diploma. 


Outside of pressure from the government, students need to prepare for the rest of their educational journey. James McGrath, 24, who is in his second year of teaching in Scranton, PA, needs his high school Latin 1 students prepared for Latin 2. He said it is unreasonable to expect that his students will be receiving as much information as they do while sitting in a classroom. “They're going to miss some things,” he said. Scranton Preparatory school shortened their school day to 35 minute periods instead of 42. He said that shorter days for his students helps to prevent burn out, and he spends time with his students talking about the pandemic. “I feel obligated to almost like check-in with kids,” he said. This is especially interesting in his International Relations class, “it's like very interesting from an international affairs perspective and partially because it's just always on everyone's minds,” he said. 


Online school does not come naturally to most students, but for students with learning differences or intellectual disabilities, online learning becomes almost impossible. Students are still expected to meet grade-level standards and turn in assignments on time and grasp challenging material, however, this is a challenge for students who were already struggling. 


A teacher at Punahou High School in Hawaii, splits her time between teaching freshman biology and a class called “Learning Strategies.” She identifies her class as “a directed study hall.” She said, “It's like a super super safe place for kids to go if they need help and support.” 


She is not a new teacher. She has been at her particular high school for 14 years. However, her learning strategies class is only two years old, and she is still figuring out how to best serve her students. 


Traditionally, she splits her time evenly between her two sections of freshman biology, which have about 20 students each, and her two learning strategies classes, which have about 10 students each.  “Because of coronavirus and being online, I'm not exaggerating, my time is about 95% learning strategies students, and about 5%, biology, she said. “I am spending from about six o'clock in the morning until about five o'clock in the afternoon with my students,” she said. 


McGrath shares similar concerns about his high-needs high schoolers. “I don't want to let kids slip through the cracks over the next two months of teaching,” he said. He said he allocates extra time in his day for students to reach out. 


“I also have what we're calling office hours after the school day ends for about 40 minutes where I have my zoom classroom open and if anyone wants to come in and re-evaluate what we had talked about that day or talk about something else, they have the opportunity to do so,” he said. 


Many teachers do not have the luxury of connecting with their students online.  “Most of my students can't log on to zoom independently and their parents are at work so having like a live zoom class wasn't really an option,” said Tresslar. 


Austin, 23, a first-year seventh-grade teacher in Kentucky, is also unable to host live zoom classes for his students. He says he posts 10-15 minutes of work everyday for his students and supplements the coursework by posting videos of him reading the material out loud on YouTube. “So the easy part is getting them the actual assignment. The hard part is figuring out ways without seeing them in person to provide extra supports,” he said. 


When asked about a typical day at school, Synder says there is a “lot of waiting,” for the students to log in, for them to reach out with questions, or for them to turn something in. “I don't really feel like a teacher. I just feel like kind of someone who's saying do this. Good job,” he said.


While most of his students at Bullet Lick Middle School, located outside of Louisville have access to chrome books through the school, internet access is a barrier for them. He said 10-15 of his students are without internet access. He mentioned his attempts to connect parents with resources for free access, but said: “it's kind of up to their discretion, whether they want to listen to us or not.” Many of his students struggle with food insecurity and rural poverty, so internet access can be a challenge for families. 


Teachers are using their creativity to innovate modes of connections. Teaching is appealing to many because of the prospect of connecting with students. I love my job so much, I tell people like I just get joy, every single day from it like when I was in the classroom,” Whiting said. While teachers are not able to see their students in person, they have not stopped building those connections and supporting their students in the best way they possibly can. 


Snyder said that his school has relaxed grading requirements for the students. “Their parents are more worried about their jobs and whether they're going to be able to provide food for the, for any given day,” he said. “So we've been very, very lenient with how we're grading things.”


There are other ways for students to feel their community through their screens. “We've been posting on the school’s Instagram; our phys ed teacher has been trying to give nudges to do exercise and things,” said McGrath. “He's gotten students involved by having them record themselves - the kids who played varsity basketball and baseball have been doing like ball handling drills to kind of get kids interested in being outside, while following the guidelines,” he said. 


He also mentioned an attempt at a crazy hat day, which was unsuccessful for his high schoolers. “There was probably like a 50% participation rate,” he said. “But some kids went all out with these funny, crazy hats and other kids were like, ‘Yeah, I just want to do this and get out here.’”


Tresslar supported her students by inviting them to reach out to her about “things that aren’t school-related,” she said. “If you just are having a crappy time right now and just like want to talk about how that makes you feel, feel free to give me a call,” she told her students in a video she sent. She also encourages her students to reach out to one another using Google Classroom.  She encourages her students to deal with this as “a traumatic experience” and bond with their peers. “They're the only people who are really gonna understand what they're going through right now,” she said. 


Teachers have expressed that technology is essential for online learning. A 22 year old who teaches at a middle school in Alpine, Utah, spoke about how an education technology called Nearpod is essential for her students.  “Nearpod basically allows you to have interactive tools inside of your slideshow,” she said.


This technology makes her lessons interactive, “You can put a quiz in there, you can have them draw something, you can have them take a poll,” she said. She also mentioned that this helps her track which students are engaging with the material. 


She also uses technology for her ninth-grade Child Development class. Instead of her typical graded work, such as participation and worksheets, the first-year teacher assigns a list of activities with different “point values.” As long as the student reaches a set number of points, he or she receives a perfect grade for the week. She said, “One of them is to create a short video or a TikTok, since that's what they love these days on something we learned about that week.”


She also mentioned how “blessed” her students are to have internet access and personal devices, a concern shared among all of the teachers featured in this article. Whiting in Indianapolis said that only 6 out of her 27 kindergartners show up to her “zoom playdates,” as she calls them. 


“I also get it, it's like if a family only has one computer or iPad or phone, why would you give it to the kindergartener for a video call?” said Whiting. 


McGrath said that for his high school history and Latin students, technology can be an unwelcome distraction, as well as a positive one. He also noted that he relies on zoom to lecture every day, and without that technology, teaching would be “nearly impossible.” He mentioned both phones and video games as major distractions for his high school students. When school was held in the building, he would take everyone’s phone at the start of class. “Now I feel like they're all just like on their phones while I'm trying to teach,” said McGrath. 


He feels that this creates a divide between him and his students and hinders the academic performance of his high schoolers. He said social media usage is “not all the time and not everybody, but I'm sure that at least at any given time, 20% of my class is on some type of social media.” 


Social platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are not the only distractions that plague students during their online school day. Many of Tresslar’s students are essential workers, many of whom work in Boston grocery stores. “So they're also going to work, and taking up extra hours, and being students, all at the same time. And that community is facing a lot of food insecurity right now too so right now students are just like balancing a lot,” she said. McGrath said some of his school students are responsible for watching younger family members, citing one student “who attends zoom class with a toddler on her lap.”


Whiting also expressed worry about her students and their general well-being. “It has been pretty hard like not being able to see my kids,” she said. “Especially because for some of them like they're always hungry like I always was sending more food at home with them, or like, they show up to school with a black eye, and they say it's from one thing, but you don't know,” she said. “It's just I feel very protective over my kids and I can't see them physically anymore, which has been hard,” she said. 


“I feel like we're missing a lot of just like the general happiness that happens at school,” said McGrath.


The Utah teacher shared the concern that it is difficult to know exactly how a student is feeling without seeing him or her in person. “It's more just like emotionally, more taxing, because I don't see my students, so I can't really fully know how they're doing,” she said.


McGrath said that being a young teacher is helpful for him, but it also hinders the progress of some students. “I think a clear advantage is my familiarity and comfort with the technology,” he said. Other teachers echoed his thoughts. “A disadvantage for me personally is that some of my older students don’t take me very seriously and teaching remotely has made that even more apparent,” he said.


New teachers are especially challenged by this set of circumstances. Tresslar said she struggles to find the right words to say when a student approaches her with problems outside of their academic work.


“I feel like a lot more experienced teachers have seen difficult situations in schools. I've had to have difficult conversations with students and families. And I think now more than ever, that's where I still struggle because I don't know the right thing to say, or how to like guide those conversations, in a way that feels productive,” said Tresslar. 


Whiting noted much of her students’ education is outside of formal lesson plans. “I just don't like there's like a lot of formative experiences that they probably aren't getting,” she said. She mentioned aspects of kindergarten such as sharing, classroom behavior, and socialization are essential lessons that the students cannot learn over Zoom. “But there's so much about school that cannot be like replaced virtually,” she said.


The first few years of any job can be extremely stressful and a period of adjustments. A pandemic heightens these worries: concerns about lesson plans, the well-being of students, and growing inequities for students who do not have the resources to succeed. Many teachers, when asked about how they are taking care of themselves, cite creating a strict cut off time for their workday. 


“I'm not going to check my phone for emails again during dinner and just, you know, while I'm cooking dinner,” said the teacher in Hawaii. She also mentioned that spending time with her two sons has been great for her mental health. 


Teachers also reserve time in the morning for themselves. “I start out, I do not look at my calendar, I try not to look at my phone and just get up, I do some yoga and meditation,” said the teacher in Utah. 


The idea that echoed through every conversation with these new teachers is how deeply teachers care about their students. 


“I'm pretty just proud of them and hoping that it continues for the rest of the year,” said McGrath. 


“Now we're kind of realizing that it's the actually seeing them in person that makes the teaching worth it,” said Snyder. “So I'm pretty excited for when it goes back to normal,” he said.

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