Teaching during a global pandemic

A year to relearn how to engage with students

Maya Marquez-Sturm
Posted 6/10/21

The pandemic has come with growing pains for all kinds of people, but in some careers, like teaching, the complete framework of the job has had to be rein- vented. Teachers this year had to relearn …

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Teaching during a global pandemic

A year to relearn how to engage with students

Posted

The pandemic has come with growing pains for all kinds of people, but in some careers, like teaching, the complete framework of the job has had to be reinvented. Teachers this year had to relearn how to engage with students who are separated by masks or computer screens while managing an immense workload.


To keep students and staff safe, Patchogue-Medford High School and many other schools on Long Island implement- ed a hybrid model: cohorts alternated between in-person and online learning. Teachers were challenged to learn how to use virtual learning platforms in a way that was interesting and captivating for their students.


“Learning how to do that again in a way that is interesting,” high school chemistry teacher Michelle Thoden said, “the majority of it came from tutori- als at home and collaborating with col- leagues.”


Teachers and students paralleled each other; both relied heavily on self-teaching. For teachers like AP English teacher Lisa Perera, who is accustomed to traditional teaching methods, the transition has been hard.


“I’m old-fashioned; that’s just my teaching style, so to transition to being technology reliant is a little difficult for me. You figure it out as you go along, but it has been frustrating,” she said.


High school band teacher Rudy John- son encountered a similar struggle.


“How do you teach band online?” said Johnson. “We had to figure that out and figure it out fast.”


Teachers had to get creative, using new programs for students at home. Johnson credits the school district for finding a solution to his unique dilemma.

“The school did a really cool job. They actually gave us a resource called Smart Music, our saving grace,” he said, explaining that it is essentially a resource that contains all the band/ orchestra pieces in the world, and with it, students can record themselves and be corrected in real time by the module. Then, Johnson and other music teachers can relisten to the students’ recordings foraddedfeedback.


Having to readjust the way they educate has been a continuous learning experience, especially since many teach- ers have years of experience with tradi- tional methods of education. They have had to relearn their profession so that it is more suitable to the current situation.


“[Teaching] has now turned into a 24-7 operation,” said Thoden.


To create engaging lessons for her students, Thoden had to learn a bit of cinematography: she would spend hours recording herself building an electro- chemical cell while narrating the process.


“I can’t tell you how many takes it took,” she said.
The stress of this year has also been exacerbated by deadlines like AP exams; Perera, who is obligated to prepare her students for their AP English exam, felt the pressure to finish by May (when AP exams begin).


“Honestly, I was panicky about APs because in the beginning of the year I was seeing kids for such a limited time,” she admitted.


Last year, the college board diluted their tests from 60 multiple choice ques- tions and three essays to only one free-re- sponse question. This year, however, the test went back to the original format, a fact that made the approaching AP season more intimidating for teachers.


Students and teachers went from doing most of their work in school to having their work constantly available to them online. This year, with all their workloads being transferred onto a device that is almost always available, that distinction between worktime and downtime has become blurred. Thoden reports that this lack of division in the day leads her students to work for hours after the day is over.


“It’s not unusual for me to get an email at 11 p.m. It’s an unending digital trail that follows you everywhere,” she said.
Many students are feeling stressed and overwhelmed this past year, which has negatively impacted their motivation to learn. Some teachers combatted this by adjusting their expectations with due date flexibility and a lot of support system “scaffolding.”


Johnson took a different approach: he pushed his kids to make the most of the year.

“I chose not to have less [motivation]. You have to hold your program and your students accountable,” he said. “Me, as a band teacher, I hold everyone account- able, whether it’s the highest band or the lower band.”


The lack of motivation was also com- pounded by a change in scheduling. When a nine-period day was introduced this year, most students ended up with at least one study hall, some up to four. For Johnson, that meant students would come to band, 7th, 8th, or 9th period after several periods of study hall, thoroughly drained.


“If [a student] wasn’t motivated, I am going to motivate [them],” he said. “[They] may have the intrinsic moti- vation, I will give [them] the extrinsic motivation.”


Thoden said they had to have someone to lean on to get through, and often, they relied on each other. She recounted the many hours that she and the other chemistry teachers spent together after school.


“We would try to meet and discuss and troubleshoot computers,” she said.


When it came to getting updates from the school, teachers formed a line of communication via group chats. The school district also offered leeway to teachers as well.


Though, one of the biggest complaints among teachers is the lack of discussion in classes. This is likely the result of mask wearing, which deters participation. In classrooms this year, not talking has become happenstance, and is frus- trating for teachers and detrimental to the class as a whole. Apart from being an integral part of the learning process, class discussions help build classroom relationships. Students build bonds with their peers when conversation is encour- aged, yet this year, much of the normal school chatter has dwindled.


“The relationship I normally see with my classes is missing, because I don’t think they feel like they’re really part of the class. Everything has changed so much for them—they went from quar- antining, everyone being home, and now coming back to everyone being here maybe two days in an empty building, wearing a mask, being separated,” Tho- den said. “I don’t feel like they even feel like they are part of the whole system anymore. It’s almost impossible in some classes to get anyone to speak.”


However, after this school year ends, it is important to reflect on all the chang- es that have occurred and how it has impacted the school community. It is also imperative to listen to teachers and stuents about where things should go from here. The common wish was for consistency—to have a plan with long-term steps that will be set in stone, barring any major shifts, and could give teachers and students the opportunity to adjust and feel secure this school year.


“Before that first day starts, every- thing has to be in place. A decision has to be made about how things are going to be done and the plan should be long term. We’ve lost expectations [of students] because it’s an unprecedented time, so I think moving forward we should come in like it’s a normal school year,” said Thoden.


There are requests for the things that everyone misses, a sense of normalcy and connection that has been so absent for the past 15 months.


“I would like to see some normalcy return... some conversation,” said Perera.


“I want [next year] to start like we are right now. We’re in person every day, we’re six feet apart, we’re in the audi- torium, not the band room, that’s fine. But at least we are seeing each other and getting it done. When we got everybody to come back to school, there was a sense of normalcy there,” Johnson added.

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