Heroes on the Front Line

Northland teachers go above and beyond in the face of uncharted territory

March 2020 came in like a lamb but went out like a wounded animal. For many, the pandemic and its ensuing shutdown was a blindside—working parents were left scrambling to care for kids that should be at school. Teachers were left in the limbo of how to teach when their students were trapped in their computers. 2020 was a lesson for us all. 

But among the ashes of the last semester were glimmers of hope—teachers that went the extra mile and found ways to connect with their students in unique ways. Here are four educators or educator teams that weathered the storm and are ready to tackle the fall of 2020 with the same hope and vigor that they would any other year. 

Natalie Ortiz, Gracemoor Elementary, North Kansas City School District

When you're a student, learning is your job. When you're an ELL (English Language Learner) student, learning in another language is even tougher. For ELL teacher at Gracemoor Elementary Natalie Ortiz, the jump to distance learning in March was one that challenged her. 

"There were a lot of students that I was concerned about. There are language barriers in a lot of these kids' families. Not everyone has access to the internet for distance learning. It's not like they could just go to the library to get online. So I checked in with all of them and made sure that they were all okay. A lot of their parents still had to work [outside the home], so I made sure of who they were staying with. I tried to help families get internet access because some companies were offering it for free, but I also didn't want their parents to sign up for something they would have to cancel or jump through hoops for when there's a language barrier. I tried not to complicate life for them any more than it was," she says. 

While Ortiz was working to keep kids safe and connected, she was also trying to help in other ways. She started sewing cloth masks, to sell them to raise money for a fund that will help families in need through the school. In all, she raised $1000 to be distributed to families. 

And those kids that were leaving Gracemoor and the ELL program? They got doorway graduations, complete with Pomp and Circumstance, summer gift baskets of activities, and socially distanced celebrations. 

Annie Rusthoven, Line Creek Elementary School, Park Hill School District 

Annie Rusthoven is an encourager at heart. That's part of what got her into teaching in the first place. 

"I like the relationship element of working with and getting to know people, so not only working just with my students but with their families and my other co-workers. I like being an encourager. That just felt very natural to me.  I enjoy getting people excited.  As I got more into the program, when I was in college, I just really loved like seeing things that were difficult and realizing that, okay, we can work through these things that are difficult for kids," she says.

Rusthaven acknowledges that there are benefits as well as drawbacks to distance learning. While it was hard dealing with the inconsistency of communication, many students thrived in a self-directed environment.

"One of the benefits was for learning to be a little bit more individualized in that they could go at their own pace. When they were ready for something more, they could hop on a Zoom that I had opened and they could say, 'I've finished this or have been working on my writing piece, but I'm not sure what to add.' For kids who were go-getter learners, it was a significant benefit for them to grow if they took that opportunity of seeking other benefits. If they prefer a quieter learning environment, or if they prefer doing something for a little bit and having a less structured schedule. If a student doesn't have the stamina to read for 30 minutes, but they can read for ten and then they can work on something in math, there's flexibility there for kids," she says. 

As much as she can see the benefits, Rusthoven is still anxious to get back in the classroom and meet her new class. 

Kristin Forsen, Second Grade, Oakhill Day School 

Kristin Forsen had never taught an online class before March 2020, but when thrown into it, she kept what she knows to be relevant at the center--connection. 

"I knew that I wanted to keep relationships with my students at the forefront and keep our classroom running consistently the way that we would be online as best as I could. So I just wanted to keep building relationships with my kids. And I think we had an amazingly quick turnaround. More than ever, as educators, we are collaborating. We have to share and pick up new skills quickly and be more professionally developed than ever. We all just jumped in to help each other. We obviously have a lot of people who are really good at technology. Then there's those of us that needed extra tutorials, and we just help each other with that," she says. 

Learning new technological ways to connect with her kids was important to Forsen. Using apps like FlipGrid, she was able to connect individually with her students and allow them to express their creativity through videos, emojis, and conversation-starting questions. She even staged virtual scavenger hunts and dance parties for her kids.

"I feel like I really got to know my students as thinkers, even more, because of just the way that virtual learning works with the way that they had to type their answers or come up with a different way to share their video and responses. That way, I really felt like I got to know them, even more than I would have done in-person learning just because we were all growing in this new way together," she says.

The Math Moms, St. Pius X High School

Things are always stronger in threes: earth, wind, and fire. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Kelly Wilson, Kathy Bonadonna, and Patti Pearson--the Math Moms of St. Pius X. 

This trio of math teachers has shared a hallway for years, taught each others' kids over the years, sharing teaching ideologies, and checking in on the best ways to communicate complex ideas with their students. When the shutdown came, they dove in headfirst to teaching a subject that requires an understanding of the process through a medium that is occasionally limited by bandwidth.  

They may be skilled mathematicians, but initially, the technology was daunting. But math doesn't bend to viruses. Math goes on. 

"We worked more hours that first couple of weeks than we ever had. We had tech issues, but we figured it out. And then we decided, we're the math department and we're going to teach as much as we ever did. A lesson a day, which was hard, but we did it," says Wilson. 

Each teacher recorded videos of themselves teaching the theory, which for some students, was helpful. 

"If you were struggling with something, you could go back and watch it over again. It was probably more beneficial for some students. We didn't teach live, but we would have a Zoom call to answer questions, and we could work things out on the board," says Bonadonna. 

Grading, though, was more difficult. Apps that the trio had introduced their students to as aids were soon being used to do the work rather than check the work. Giving partial credit is part of grading math homework, which is made even tougher by unclear copies being turned in. 

While some schools didn't allow grades to drop after distance learning kicked in, the Math moms were not so lenient. All three teachers expected students to show up, participate, and learn to the best of their ability. And they did. 

Now, they are ready to get back in the classroom, as all of our teachers are. While safety measures are important, not one of the teachers spoke of the fear of going back to school. Quite the opposite. They all expressed a strong desire to get back into the classroom and be able to connect with their students again. And that's what makes them heroes. Thanks to all the educators out there!

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