This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
Last March, almost every aspect of school was upended. No one anticipated the pandemic that has reshaped our lives in countless ways inside and outside the classroom.
We’ve all learned a lot in the past year — from new technologies and ways of teaching, to how to smile with our eyes and stay connected while maintaining social distance — but some things endured, especially the resiliency and resolve of educators.
This year has been a “whirlwind of learning experience and adventure,” says Omar Esson, a second and third grade teacher in Killeen ISD. “So many roller-coaster moments, from absenteeism coupled with higher expectations, to uncertainty that created insurmountable anxieties, yet we pressed on as educators because that’s what we do.”
Innovative thinking, improvisation and collaboration helped Esson and his colleagues create dynamic and engaging lessons for virtual and in-person learners.
“I listened to my students and kept in constant communication with my parents whenever it was possible,” he said. “I survived because teaching is what I love and do and helping kids succeed is my way of life.”
Like many teachers across Texas, Nancy Hale has juggled in-person and virtual learners since September when Farmersville ISD began the 2020-21 school year.
Disruptions last spring meant Hale had to start by reteaching lessons her sixth graders should have learned in fifth grade before beginning her usual math curriculum.
“My students have been like sponges all year, soaking up everything I teach them,” Hale said. “Every day when I see that determination in their eyes to not let the pandemic be an excuse for them, that’s what spurs me on to continue teaching.”
Calling her 31st year in the classroom a challenge is an understatement. She had to how learn to create video lessons for remote learners, use Google Classroom to post and manage assignments, and find ways to connect with students she had never met in person. She also had to handle students who flipped from in-person to remote learning and back again throughout the year. Sometimes it felt like she was in her first year of teaching again. She said the challenge has been invigorating. It’s also been exhausting.
“But, as teachers, we modify, shift, pivot, turn, and re-create ourselves into whatever it takes to reach our students,” she said. “I am so very proud of my students for their determination, hard work, and perseverance. They inspire me every day.”
She inspires her students, too. Hale was named Teacher of the Year at Farmersville Junior High this year. Despite the challenges she faced, her principal told Hale she made it look easy.
But this year hasn’t been easy. Tara Williams, a self-contained special education teacher in Katy ISD, started the year learning how to use Canvas to manage her classroom while adjusting to teaching a new grade level on a new campus. Connecting virtually with her students was a challenge. “I made an effort to ask all of my students questions about themselves,” Williams said. “Not only does this foster a language-rich environment but it built the foundation for the connections we’ve built throughout the year.”
She learned to establish a routine while being flexible. “The main thing that kept me going was knowing how much my students missed school when it was shut down. ... School is one of their primary social outlets,” Williams said. “I put aside fear and doubt and focused on making sure that they were safe and happy and learning. As a result, we’ve had a great year.”
Williams says adapting during the pandemic has made her a better educator.
“I’ve learned that nothing is as scary as I imagine it is,” she said. “And everyone, regardless of age, label, or title, needs help, accommodations, or modifications for something. A little grace goes a long way.”
At first, teaching in a pandemic scared Lilliana De Leon. With new programs like Google Classroom and Jamboard to learn and so many unknowns, she said she often felt like a rudderless ship in the middle of the ocean. But after the initial panic subsided, she decided nothing — not even COVID-19 — would stop her from pursuing her passion for teaching.
She relied on her mentors and colleagues in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD to guide her through the storm. Together they learned to be patient and encourage one another as they faced the challenges of virtual teaching.
“After many sleepless nights, headaches, erasing assignments, or not being able to use Pear Deck, I have learned that teaching is teaching, and not even the pandemic could separate me from teaching reading and writing to my students,” De Leon said.
Melissa Fasolino said she experienced a lot of trepidation when Belton ISD administrators told teachers they’d be returning to campus. With elderly parents and a young grandchild, she didn’t want to put her family at risk.
As guidelines changed daily in the fall, “no one really knew what to expect,” she said, but her administrators kept the lines of communication open, inviting school employees, parents and the community into the conversation until they came up with a hybrid learning plan that worked.
While many students were excited to return to school and amazed her with their ability to adapt, Fasolino said some of her virtual learners struggled with isolation.
“I have always been a nurturer, but this experience has required teachers to find creative ways to reach students at home and pull them back into their classrooms,” she said.
Building relationships over Zoom and getting remote and in-person learners to participate in conversations in her AP English class was challenging.
“One day in particular stands out,” Fasolino said. “I assigned a poem, ‘Dover’ by Theodore Roethke. The speaker’s first line describes the ‘inexorable sadness of pencils’ and appears to be a mundane poem about office supplies/spaces. Of course, there is so much more to the poem, but my remote students were so affected by this poem, that I turned the entire classroom focus on their discussion that day.
“My face-to-face learners were mesmerized by the connections the remote learners were making to this poem, which in fact deals with loneliness and isolation,” she said. “I’ve always loved this poem, but that day, it became the catalyst and opened the door of communication between all of my students. It was raw, emotional and real. And students in the classroom began to understand why inclusion of the remote students was so incredibly important.”
Helping students connect and engage to build a learning community amid the pandemic has made Fasolino a better teacher.
“Our students need us more than ever right now. They need to know there are people beyond their homes who care for them and pull them back into the world outside the four walls of their bedrooms, living rooms, or whatever workspace they have claimed,” she said. “I am so grateful for all teachers who have chosen to take on this responsibility this year because our students need us more than ever right now.”
While we hope rising vaccination rates bring a return to a more traditional school year in the fall, we can’t say with certainty what classrooms will look like in August. We also don’t know how long it will take students to recover the learning they’ve lost. But, as this school year has shown us, we will endure and endeavor to overcome whatever challenges we face.