Conquering the COVID-19 Challenge

Sending Love to Our Teachers as They Overcome the Challenges of Being an Educator During a Pandemic

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students across the country have shifted from in-person classes to virtual learning. We have interviewed four area teachers to get their input on the challenges of teaching remotely and how community support has proven key to providing the necessary flexibility to meet the unprecedented pandemic-related challenges.

Mauryn Bennight

Mauryn Bennight is a visual arts teacher at Kennedy Middle School. When asked about frustrations associated with virtual learning Mauryn reveals, “For art, specifically, its been really challenging because we are a hands-on class. We’re usually drawing or painting or using the materials we have at school for all students to use.”

Teaching through the pandemic has required adapting project assignments because within the student population there is a vast disparity in the availability of materials in the home. Mauryn notes she is fortunate to work with a supportive staff and a principal who is committed to equity and ensuring students have the same access to materials. In preparation for the 2020-2021 school year, the art budget was allocated to purchase sketchbooks and basic drawing materials for an art pack that was sent to each student’s home. This has allowed Mauryn to plan assignments knowing what students have available.

According to Mauryn, teachers and students have faced a learning curve in the switch to virtual learning. For her students, the challenge has been uploading images of paper-based works for her review. Teachers have been faced with having to learn new platforms quickly to facilitate assignment management.

Virtual learning has proven difficult for students. Mauryn explains, “Students miss the connections. They miss their teachers. They miss physically being somewhere other than their house.”

Teachers also miss one on one interactions as Mauryn observes, “Teachers go into education because we are passionate about students and our subjects. It has been difficult to be so detached, only seeing students occasionally on the screen.”

Summing up the situation, Mauryn issues this call: “Be kind to your teachers. Parents are feeling like they are being teachers and chefs. I get that you’re spending so much time with your kids. Teachers are doing their best so just have grace.”

Kristen Kliemisch

Kristen Kliemisch is a physical education and health teacher at Kennedy Middle School. By building relationships with her students, Kristen has worked to keep her students engaged in physical activity during the pandemic. Mindful of students being in front of computers much of the day, Kristen is careful when making assignments to be sure students can complete tasks during class times rather than spending additional time completing homework.

Kristen believes the phenomenon of “Zoom burnout” is real and that’s why so many students are drawn to physical activities where they don’t have to concentrate on their screens. Kristen asserts, “Our major focus is providing the best we can to our students at the current point in time.”

Flexibility is key as Kristen explains PE classes have transitioned from a focus on team sports to a lifelong fitness approach. Workouts are tailored so students will not be asked to do things that require tools not readily available.

Classes feature a choice of activities for students in Zoom breakout rooms. Kristen finds that extroverted students are taking part on camera while introverted students are taking advantage of the option to videotape their workouts.

Kristen notes the shutdown has been particularly difficult for sixth graders and other students who are new to the school because they have not met their classmates and are struggling to make connections.

Kristen believes in the ability of teachers to inspire having decided in eighth grade to become an educator based on the example of her PE and health teacher who went out of his way to “humanize students and make connections.”

Alison Zorrilla

Alison Zorrilla is a career and technical education teacher at Coulwood Stem Academy and teaches sixth and seventh graders. Because she teaches technology, Alison did not face the same challenge other teachers have experienced in making the switch to the virtual classroom. Because of her expertise, Alison has been responsible for helping other teachers at the school train in the use of course management system, Canvas.

For Alison, the primary challenge has been getting students working from home on board and connecting to classes. To engage students, Alison takes care to make assignments that are relevant to them by building skills they will apply in the future.

Maintaining easy communication with students has emerged as an essential element to successfully teaching remotely. Using Microsoft Teams has allowed Alison to be readily available to her students.

As teachers and students prepare to return to school on November 23rd, many teachers are reluctant due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Alison explains, “It’s scary for us as teachers because we’re at the most risk, especially if you’re an older teacher or one with a pre-existing condition.”

Still, Alison is eager to return to the traditional classroom for the sake of the students: “I feel it’s in the best interests of our students to go back and for that purpose, I and a lot of teachers are willing to go back.”

Alison credits her principal, Dr. Janet Moss, and her commitment to creating a safe environment for teachers and students with giving her the confidence to return to the schoolroom.

Alison has noted her students have a strong desire to return to the traditional classroom and she agrees that virtual teaching makes it difficult to connect with kids as she would like: “It’s harder to develop the rapport with students and really get to know them.”

Shawn Panther

Shawn Panther is an educator at Charlotte Catholic High School where he teaches AP Micro/Macro Economics and U.S. History classes and serves as the Social Studies Department Head. 

Adapting the traditional daily schedule to avoid crowded hallways and adhere to social distancing mandates while also giving students as much of a sense of normalcy as possible has been the guiding principle for the CCHS staff.  Shawn emphasizes the importance of adaptability in reaching this goal and dealing with frustrations that surfaced early in the school year.

Shawn teaches high school seniors and notes the students have expressed sadness at missing certain milestones such as homecoming court dance and the state championship football week. The students crave social interaction and as Shawn notes "so much of a school is much more than what happens inside the classroom."

Shawn describes the response to the pandemic as very much a group effort. The staff have grown "closer than we've ever been because we have had to be there for one another. We have really grown together which allows us to be nimble." 

Shawn credits a supportive administration that has put a lot of time and effort into preparation and safety protocols designed to keep students and staff safe and allow CCHS to meet in-person this fall.

Shawn recalls asking parents to be patient with him at the beginning of the school year as students, staff and parents came together to navigate the unprecedented challenges the pandemic presented. The response has been gratifying as Shawn notes, "I have received more thank you notes and messages of encouragement from parents this year than any other." 

This Valentine's Day (and every day) don't forget to send a little extra love and happiness to our educators.

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