The Journal Gazette asked educators throughout Allen County to share what it's been like to prepare for a school year during a pandemic. Here are their edited responses.
• Kapree Sisson teaches fourth grade at Holland Elementary School in Fort Wayne Community Schools. She has more than 20 years of teaching experience.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? I relied heavily on personal strategies to maintain a healthy and positive mindset to cope with the complex issues we are facing worldwide. In such trying times, I knew I needed to be focused, open and flexible to better serve my students and their families.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? Delivering in-person and remote instruction simultaneously is especially challenging. It has required high levels of innovative thinking, especially with all of the technology that it involves. I am in a more unique set up than most elementary schools. I teach “in-person” while delivering “remote instruction” to a second “in-person” classroom with a full-time classroom assistant. This allows social distancing. With extra adult support, I can walk back and forth between two classrooms to ensure that I am attending to all my students. Also, I offer the opportunity for any absent student to join my classroom via Zoom.
What hasn't changed about school or teaching? There will always be something new to learn.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? I hope that my students take away a sense of gratitude, learn how to find value in one another and also learn the importance of perseverance.
• Kelly Andrews teaches fifth grade at New Haven Intermediate School in East Allen County Schools. She has 18 years of experience.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? I am having to give more thought about every little thing, from spacing the kids out in line to how to space out the desks the best I can. How to monitor that students are following COVID-19 policies and procedures is also different from last year. I have had to learn much about how to best use technology to meet all students' needs. Another thing that has been different is helping families navigate virtual learning. In addition, figuring out how to prepare and manage for district assessments when I have both in-class and online students has been different. Thankfully, all my families and district administrators have been very understanding and gracious as we learn how to navigate the virtual component.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? I was ready to start school on the first day, but I was notified a family member had tested positive for COVID. This put me in a unique situation because I was going to have to start the school year teaching remotely from my kitchen for the required 14 days. And to add another level to this, I am a hybrid teacher. This means that I have around 14 kids in class and 11 that participate virtually through Zoom. I was having to begin figuring out how I was going to manage in-class students, online students and a substitute teacher – all from my home. I had none of my normal resources. Many tears were shed. The fear I felt about the unknown quickly went away when I began to focus on how I was going to do what's best for students. Then, returning to my class, I had the challenge of figuring out how to run a room with students in the room and on my iPad. However, with the amazing support that my district administrators, my fifth grade team, and my families gave me, I was able to make the transition rather smoothly.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? I hope they learn perseverance, patience and grace. I hope they learn it's not important how hard you get knocked down, but how quickly you get up and keep moving forward. I hope they learn that sometimes things happen that are out of our control, but how you choose to react to the situation will determine how their journey will end. I hope they learn about teamwork, and that all our successes are dependent on us working together. I want them to understand it's OK to be scared, nervous or sad because I feel that way, too. This year my class is living by the motto, “W.I.N the Day, What's Important Now.” With things changing on a daily basis, I want them to just focus on the now, and we will worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
• Tira Brown teaches Canterbury Lower School students and has 21 years of experience.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? This year, unlike others, I felt like I had to remix my way of teaching. This included watching more webinars and YouTube videos, especially those pertaining to technology. I found myself following more techy teachers on social media. My hopes are that I am more prepared to virtually engage with my students and make learning fun.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? Teaching behind a mask and plexiglass is no easy feat. The mask alone creates many issues. I have tried several types of masks, and I have yet to find the perfect one. Also, I enjoy the social interaction with my co-workers and my students' parents. An entire week may go by without me seeing teachers who work down the hallway from me.
What hasn't changed about school or teaching? The students' love for learning hasn't changed. Their love for interacting with their friends hasn't changed. They continue to bring smiles with them every morning. Despite the masks, extra hand washing and constant cleaning of their areas, their smiles are what gets many of us through the day.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? Be brave and not afraid of change. Be brave and ready for the unexpected.
• Dave Panning teaches math at Homestead High School in Southwest Allen County Schools. This is his 29th year of teaching.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? This year was like shooting a basketball at a hoop that would not stay still. Our district provided extra days for us to get ready with extra training, which included online tools and support from peers. However, we were all guessing as to what teaching would be like with students physically in your room as well as students Zooming from home. How to best monitor their progress, provide support, build relationships, and inspire them to achieve great things were all challenges we were and still are trying to achieve.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? The goal of any year is to both challenge and support your students. Challenge them to overcome obstacles they think may to too difficult and support them when they are feeling overwhelmed. Building relationships with students helps this process because most students first must learn how much you care before they are ready to learn the content you provide. The most challenging aspect of teaching this year is building those relationships. With all the extra technology pieces and with students in different locations wearing masks and social distancing it is difficult to find time as well as a medium to truly get to know your students and find out what makes them tick or what they might be struggling with.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? As we all struggle with this pandemic, I hope students see that each person is unique and valued. Our differences are many, but our sense of community is also important and should be celebrated.
• Trevor Campbell teaches visual arts at Concordia Lutheran High School. He has five years of experience.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? So much of what we do is shared. We share inspirations. We share conversations about our ideas. We share supplies. Most of my preparations revolved on how to keep these elements of sharing, while not sharing the same immediate space. A lot more time is spent sanitizing in the room. A lot of our projects have to be ready to take home at a moment's notice.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? One of the best parts about working at a high school is developing relationships with students all around the building, a lot of them not in my classes. This year there is less hanging out in the halls, and everyone goes right to their classroom. There are fewer interactions with the student body, no more students popping in between classes, and no students hanging out in the classroom before school. This year has been especially hard in the art room. In a studio environment, students are able to get up and look at other projects, grab tools they need, talk with their classmates and share thoughts and ideas. We don't get a lot of that.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? I hope they take away the same things as any year – a sense of accomplishment, a little more confidence in themselves, a better understanding of their role in the community, how positivity and kindness can change the world, and maybe a little more knowledge about art. This year, they are going to have to be flexible, take it day by day, and not let the little things bother them. Every day together is a gift, no matter how many we get.
• Mindy Walz teaches American literature to juniors and Advanced Placement English literature and composition to seniors at Concordia. This is her eighth year at the school.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? Preparing for this year was difficult because I wasn't sure how to prepare. I usually like to have the whole first semester mapped out when the year starts, but I wasn't sure if major changes that would affect the plans might come up at the last minute. I spent some time in workshops and on my own trying to learn about more technology applications. I knew rapid changes would likely be a part of the year. Flexibility on everyone's part has been and will continue to be important for students to be able to continue to learn well.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? There have been many changes and lots of things to remember. There has been so much to learn and so many adjustments to be made. In the last six months I have alternated between feeling quite proud of all that my colleagues and I have learned and feeling overwhelmed about what still must be done and what might be coming next. I work hard to learn new skills related to technology, but it does not come easily for me. When I am frustrated, I try to remember that my students sometimes get frustrated when they are learning, too. It hasn't been easy, though. I have recognized decision and change fatigue in myself and in my colleagues. Even the basics of classroom management have shifted. I have to remember to stop class early enough to leave time to sanitize the desks before the next class comes in. I have had to rearrange my room and have to keep students in their desks the whole class period. In the past, I have intentionally worked to incorporate more activity and movement into classes. When I look at last year's lessons, I remember having a lot of group interaction and discussions that included moving around the room. I have to rethink that now. I have had a number of students who have had to be absent for extended periods. It has been very time consuming and sometimes feels like two jobs: planning for classes in person and for students at home. I have tried to include the students from home when I think it is effective and to make sure that they have access to the materials they need to keep up with their work. I know it isn't easy for them.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? I hope this is a year students can look back on with pride. I hope they can tell their kids someday about all the challenges that were a part of this year and all the ways they grew and the things they learned as a part of it. I hope they will have had the chance to discover new interests or talents as a result of the changes that have happened. I hope students will have a greater sense of agency in their own education; even though teachers and parents are available to provide tools and to support learning, students have a great deal of responsibility for what they learn. I hope they can move forward with greater confidence, knowing they have the strength and resilience to face whatever difficulties life may bring. I hope they can discover new capacities to treat others, and themselves, with love and grace. I hope they can remember that, despite the many challenges, they were never alone.
• Molly Bowman is teaching Northwest Allen County Schools fourth graders remotely. This is her 16th year teaching.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? I was concerned that forming relationships with the students would be difficult over a computer screen, but it has gone incredibly well. I think my biggest challenge is not being physically present with the students. In a traditional classroom, I can make sure I have the ingredients for a science experiment or the supplies for an engineering project. With the online format, I am not able to deliver supplies to each house, so I'm having to come up with alternate solutions. I also miss the high fives and hugs from students that you get in a “normal” year.
What hasn't changed about school or teaching? Kids are still kids. They are excited to learn and interact with their peers, even in an online format. I have students in my class from different elementary schools within the district, and the kids are forming new friendships. We have talked about how exciting it will be when they get to middle school and get to reconnect with the friends from other schools.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? This year, and every year, my goal is for my students to leave my classroom knowing that they are cared about and supported. I hope they also leave with curiosity and tools to learn that they can carry with them throughout their lives.