Since the COVID-19 outbreak forced schools across the country to transition to distance learning strategies, Washoe County School District teachers have come together to help their students through the crisis. As the school year comes to a close on June 5, many educators have discovered that the pandemic has brought teachers, students, and families closer together in ways unlike ever before.
The transition to distance learning, much like the shelter-in-place lockdowns, happened fast and with little warning. Yet teachers in the District, many of whom had never delivered online classes before, had to quickly adapt so they could still support their students’ learning.
“The transition at first was rocky,” Jennifer Malaterre, an eighth grade math teacher at Dilworth STEM Academy, said. “Once school started after spring break, it was overwhelming just trying to figure out [distance learning] without true guidance. However, I am grateful that the District created the curriculum, so that was one less thing on our plate.”
Laura Ellis, an eight grade science teacher at Dilworth, also acknowledged that the District’s curriculum helped with the transition online. Ellis previously had experience teaching online classes as a graduate student, but teaching college students is inherently different than teaching eight-graders.
“The expectations for engagement, involvement and communication are so different,” Ellis said. “So my experience with grown-ups, where all of the learning and responsibility is so independent, it’s a whole different world [than with children].”
In a virtual classroom, teachers like Ellis and Malaterre were challenged to rethink their traditional roles as educators.
“I tend to feel like we have two different roles,” Ellis said. “Right now we have the communication piece of contacting and keeping track of how our students and families are doing in our advisory classes. Then our other job is still to facilitate the actual learning of our content.”
For Ashley Porter, a fifth-grade teacher at Veterans Elementary School, creating that safe space for students to be themselves took on a higher-level of priority than before.
“I’m used to having that safe space [for children] in my classroom and so that was really difficult at the beginning,” Porter said. “It was re-determining what my role in all this was going to be and what teaching was going to look like in this new era. I had to realize that [education] wasn’t going to be at the foremost in [my students’] mind at that moment. There were a lot of other things happening in the world that were going to take over learning time. So I had to reevaluate how I benefit their lives and make sure that what I’m doing is still providing help, guidance and learning.”
Roselia Lacow, a kindergarten teacher who is in her eighth year at Veterans Elementary School, has had persistent concerns for her students’ well-being since the nationwide shelter-in-place orders were declared.
“My biggest concern was about the kids in my class because they’re in a low socio-economic area,” Lacow said. “I was very concerned about their well being and if they had food. So I have that in the back of my mind while figuring out the logistics of how they were going to get technology, because they don’t have computers. So I’m trying to make that initial contact to make sure they were okay. But I am also super grateful that the District really stepped up and provided materials, and that I’m able to use platforms like [Zoom] to facilitate that learning for my kids.”
Malaterre, who had a student runaway from home early on in the pandemic, agreed that teaching in a low socio-economic school was an added concern with the transition to online teaching, particularly for the special education students and those on an Individual Education Program (IEP).
“Working at a Title One school, which has low socio-economic status and a higher percentage of students on an IEP, and the special education students we have is higher than the district average,” Malaterre said. “It was rough to get started.”
As classes moved to distance learning, each of the teachers had to face new challenges related to not only student attendance, but the development of social skills that inherently go hand-in-hand with learning in the classroom. Malaterre hosts open Zoom meetings for her students to come in and ask questions about their math curriculum. However, not all the students use it for that purpose, which she understands.
“I have three students that are in there regularly, mostly just for social interaction, they’re not really there to do math,” Malaterre said. “I don’t mind if I’m the only real connection that they have [with each other]. For them it’s been very challenging, because they want to be with their friends. [Children are] social creatures and want to see others.”
Developing social skills is a particularly important element for children starting out in school, as Lacow could attest to from her years of working at the kindergarten level. That consideration factored into Lacow’s decision of which digital platform to use for her online classes, choosing Zoom over Microsoft Teams so her students could still see each other.
“For kindergarteners, it’s very difficult because we’re in an early phase trying to learn those social skills,” Lacow said. “I still have kids every day that say, ‘When do we get to go back to school? I just want to play with my friends.’ It’s really hard and it’s heart-wrenching for me so it does make it hard.”
For Porter, she has seen her fifth grade students go through what she describes as a four-stage realization period of what the transition online meant. At first, many of her students viewed the transition as an extended spring break. But as time went on, they began realizing all that they were missing.
“They began having the realization that the world is kind of boring without school,” Porter said. “They’re realizing, ‘I want to learn. I want to continue being at school and being with my teacher.’”
Redefining What It Means to Be a Teacher
One positive outcome of distance learning has been the initiative Laura Ellis has seen some of her students take in regard to their school work.
“Some students may be very strong socially, but not with their grades,” Ellis said. “So I think they kind of had to re-evaluate what their place in their own education is. A lot of students I’ve seen have totally stepped it up because I think they realized, ‘I miss that and I enjoy learning. I’m home and I have nothing better to do.’ When they have taken a lot of the other distractions away, I’ve seen some real shining stars out of students that I wasn’t expecting.”
But in order to facilitate the learning of class content, all of the teachers have had to re-define their roles and re-structure how they deliver their lessons.
“I co-teach math, so there’s two teachers all the time because we have all the IEP students in eighth grade, and so much of my entire classroom is collaborative learning,” Jennifer Malaterre said. “So working through it to basically now as an online tutor, it was devastating. It’s still devastating for me every day because I just get to show them an example instead of getting them to talk to their peers and have that opportunity to create the learning for themselves.”
Consequently, a big part of their jobs as teachers now is not only getting their students’ attention, but keeping it as well.
“I found that my biggest shift is in trying to just be as creative as possible to get the kids attention,” Ellis said. “So I went straight to doing YouTube videos, silly videos or doing embarrassing things with myself just to catch their attention.”
“That engagement piece, especially with five-year-olds, is very difficult because when some of them figure out they can draw on the screen, we get distracted by that,” Lacow said. “But we do a lot of songs. I have to move very quickly just to keep that engagement focus for those 30 minutes, twice a day that I see them. Otherwise, it turns into chaos because they all want to show their toys and things like that.”
But Lacow still allots time for her students to interact with each other socially and emotionally, by telling jokes or sharing stories. Porter, too, starts each of her class meetings with a discussion of how each student is feeling that day; it’s her way of making sure her students know she’s there for them.
But holding classes over Zoom has also changed the relationship between teachers and the families of their students. Although the teachers stress that parent involvement in their students’ education is as important as ever with the transition online, it’s also given a window into each others’ lives.
“That first two weeks, I felt like I was emailing, calling and texting at all hours of the day, literally just trying to make initial contact and figure out [parents’] schedules and let them know about learning packets and where they can find resources,” Lacow said.
Having a child of her own in school, Lacow can understand the challenges that can come with parents filling in the role as an at-home teacher, especially if they’re an essential worker or still working full-time.
“I think at Veterans, our parents are really doing the best they can,” Lacow said. “It can be really difficult to get your child to do things that are school-related, because they don’t see you as their teacher and that can be super frustrating. I have parents in my class of kids, they’re still working full-time and just doing the best they can to help their kids.”
“I have parents [working in] a lot of different essential fields as well, and it’s difficult to kind of hear what they’re going through, in addition to trying to help their kids get homework done,” Porter said. “So the benefit of this experience has been having more of a human connection with each parent. Honestly, I feel way more connected to my students’ family than I did before [the outbreak] because we are constantly connecting with them. I’m getting to see what they find important and what they’re wanting from this experience. So it’s been a really interesting experience and getting to know each family on a more personal, more in-depth level.”
Empathy Across a School Community
One thing Porter stresses to keep in mind, for parents and teachers alike, is that their students are going through something none of them had to experience as a child.
“It’s so important for us all to remember through this that everyone, including me, is doing the best they can with the cards we’ve been dealt with and that includes the kids, too,” Porter said. “[The children are] going through something that none of us ever had to face as a child, having to stay at home and try to do this is crazy.”
Ellis believes that the better understanding between families and teachers has worked both ways, as families are seeing their teachers in their own home environment.
“It’s been powerful for families to see that we’re all human,” Ellis said. “[Teachers] have our kids and dogs at home with everything running around. I think our students sometimes think of us as, ‘The adult that lives in the classroom,’ and they forget that we have our own things going on in life. So that communication, that connection, has definitely been a two-way street and really positive.”
For many of the teachers, the unprecedented challenge and unique academic experience of this spring will end when the school year closes on June 6th. Consequently, they’re waiting in hopes that they’ll be back in the classroom when the next school year starts in the fall. They’re anxious to get back into the classroom, particularly stressing its importance as a new school year starts.
“If we don’t meet our students face-to-face right off the bat, I think it’s going to be hard at our middle school level to capture them,” Ellis said. “If we can’t make those relationships before we expect them to start really diving into curriculum, I am worried about what that might look like and it makes me think of different ways we can [develop] our relationships prior to starting. But it makes me nervous for sure.”
Therefore, they’re mindful of and preparing for the possibility of continuing distance learning in the fall. Either way, this experience has prepared them to hit the ground running.
“One of the things I’m gaining from this experience is access to understanding a lot of the tools that I can now use in my classroom and work digitally,” Porter said. “Even if we go back to the classroom in the fall, I’ll have it ready. If we are online, I’ll have it ready and that is such a cool feeling.”
“I think for me personally, just being more prepared and understanding how to use this technology to benefit my kids is going to be a big step,” Lacow said. “If we get to go back, I think it’s important that we are teaching our kids how to use this technology and how to use this specific program, even in kindergarten just being more prepared has been pretty eye-opening.”
In the meantime, until an announcement for the fall will be made, they just want their students to know how much they love and miss them. For those concerned about how this might affect their child’s educational development in the future, they stress patience and an understanding that everyone is going through this together.
“It’s not as much about the academics as it is about them and getting them to be okay,” Malaterre said. “We’re here because we love kids, we do our job because we love kids. But in this kind of a situation, I truly want them to know how much I love them and how much they are missed.”
The teachers will have one more chance to see their students, however, when they come back to receive their materials left behind in the classroom during the outbreak.
“This week they’re going to start collecting their materials and I will be on the front-line,” Malaterre said. “Not just to see them and socialize, but to let them know that it’s okay to be frustrated and sad. It’s okay to have all of the emotions that they have, no matter their background or where they come from, it’s okay to be vulnerable and know that people are there to help you, to pick you up and to love you no matter what.”
It’s the understanding that we will all get through this together that many of the teachers hope families and students take away from this experience.
“I hope that families realize how much teachers really care about their children,” Lacow said. “Before any of this happened, we always said in my class that we could do hard things and that we’re problem-solvers. I think it’s about reminding them that this is a real struggle, but we’re going to get through it together.”
“I know a lot of families are worried about their kids being behind,” Ellis said. “But everyone is going through the same thing, if they’re feeling lonely on an emotional level, we all are going through the same thing. But on an academic standpoint, too, it’s okay. We’re all having gaps. We all have to make sure that our kids are okay before we can even expect them to get caught up, so I think patience, flexibility and kindness are what I want people to approach us with.”
So although distance learning has forced teachers to engage with their students in new ways, there is still that element of community that exists within the school.
“This experience has had the most tumultuous, most frustrating moments and really crazy, beautiful, amazing moments,” Porter said. “I’ve gone through the full spectrum of emotions throughout this. But I’m doing this because I love my job and I’ve also gotten moments where I have one kid who just so badly wants to see every teacher that he will call each teacher individually into our team meeting, trying to get them to join so that he can see them. Those little moments where you get to see them crave their community or be connected with their community, have been really cool.”
Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.