Schools across the country are grappling with how to educate their students while keeping them safe during the pandemic. Locally, most Southern Indiana schools are teaching students in person or using a hybrid schedule, while other states have opted for online learning. The focal point has been students and their health. The teachers and how they are all of these added challenges are an important component in the success of this school year.
This issue, we talk to a few teachers about how they are adapting to the new environment, including two new teachers. Julie Payne ’14 is in her second year of teaching 10th grade special education English in Washington, D.C., as part of the Urban Teachers program, and Kaitlyn Hellinger ’16 is in her first year of teaching second grade at St. Anthony School in Clarksville. Aimee (Hess) McDonnell ’96, who teaches English as a second language at Kenwood Elementary in Louisville, provides an experienced teacher’s point of view.
Hellinger is navigating the rigors of first-year teaching with the added component of safety and health practices for her in-person classroom. St. Anthony has two licensed teachers who provide online learning to students who opt to learn virtually this semester, so she is able to focus on her classroom students as she builds her lesson plans and creates teaching materials. She does, however, upload assignments to Google Classroom for her digital learners.
While she did have an opportunity to work online with one student last spring, her student teaching assignment did not extend into virtual learning. She completed her elementary education student teaching in Indianapolis, but the quarantine began when she was just two weeks into her special education teaching assignment. Marian University, where she earned her degree in elementary education and a minor in special education, changed the required length for student teachers once the quarantine began.
Hellinger said she is enjoying getting to know her students, adapting to their various learning styles, and eager to help them prepare for their First Communion. See below for a more detailed Q&A.
Payne teaches at a public charter school in D.C., which is requiring distance learning for the first several weeks of school. She said she feels more successful at providing online learning this semester after having the summer to “work out the kinks.” Working with her co-teacher, she is able to offer synchronous learning (live teaching at scheduled times) as well as in platforms from Google Classroom and Zoom to Nearpod and Quizziz.
She is able to provide one-on-one instruction as well as work more closely with a variety of teachers in other subjects, thanks to the school’s emphasis on cross-curricular collaboration. However, what is more challenging is building the rapport with her students that came more easily with in-person learning, she said.
Payne also feels more successful as a teacher overall, having learned a lot during her first year last year, as well as from master’s classes in education that she is taking at Johns Hopkins University. See below for a more detailed Q&A.
McDonnell said she is energized by the creativity her fellow teachers and the staff have used at her school to engage students during distance learning. At the same time, she realizes her students are missing out on an important component of in-person classes, that of being immersed in an environment with naturally occurring conversations in English. Many of her ESL students have no other English speakers in their homes, so they miss out on the daily listening to and speaking their new language.
Question: How is your school year going so far?
Kaitlyn Hellinger: The school year has been going well so far. It was a little bit of an adjustment at first, mainly for me to become more comfortable as a first-year teacher and figuring out what did and didn’t work with my class. However, we have settled into a routine and are improving every day. They are getting used to being in school again, since they were out of the school building for such a long time due to the pandemic. The students are doing a lot better than I ever anticipated with keeping their masks on. You can tell how badly they want to be in school with their classmates and teachers instead of being online like they were in the spring.
Q: What do you like about teaching second grade?
KH: Second grade is a fun age. My students are old enough to be a little more independent but still young enough to be silly and excited to learn. It is also the year students make their First Communion. I am thrilled to be able to accompany my students while they are taking this important and exciting step in their faith life.
Q: What creative ways are you using to get to know your students since everyone is masked?
KH: Even while social distancing and wearing our masks, my class was still able to play some get-to-know-you games at the beginning of the year. My students also love to talk and tell stories, so finding a little time throughout the day to listen to their stories and learn more about them has been important as well.
Q: What do you find most challenging in your first year of teaching?
KH: Finding the time to complete everything has been extremely challenging. I knew this was going to be a challenge my first year, even without the pandemic. There is just so much to plan, create, and grade. Since it is my first year, I do not have materials already made to use, so I am making everything from scratch, which takes a lot of time. I also do not have a partner teacher so figuring out the best way to teach everything has been a little overwhelming, but the other primary teachers have been a great help and are always willing to give me their opinion and support.
Q: What do you find most rewarding?
KH: When I get to see the “light bulb” go off in students when they finally understand a concept, we are working on is so rewarding. We work so hard together to learn new things and clarify any confusion so seeing when it finally clicks is just as rewarding for me as it is for them. I also love seeing my students grow as people. I have only known them for about a month, but some of them have already changed so much. Seeing them help one another and make Christ-like choices is a dream come true. Also, seeing their smiling eyes and masked faces when they are leaving at dismissal while saying they don’t want to leave school yet makes me feel like I am making an impact and helping my students love learning.
Q: How did your own education experience prepare you for being a first-year teacher?
KH: Thinking back to when I was a student in elementary school, the fun interactive projects are what I remember the most. I plan to incorporate as many hands-on learning experiences for my students as possible. My time in college with practicums in elementary classrooms and student teaching helped me see classroom management strategies, lesson ideas, classroom set ups, and have many other valuable experiences to help me go into my first year of teaching with an idea of how I wanted to run my classroom and teach certain skills.
Q: What is it like to be teaching at your old school?
KH: Teaching in my old school is like coming home, as cheesy as that may sound. I honestly could not imagine myself teaching anywhere else. I get to teach alongside some of my absolute favorite teachers while getting to know them in a different light as coworkers instead of as my teachers. It is still a little weird to call them by their first name instead of as Mrs. So-and-so, but I am slowly adjusting. Old and new faces alike, everyone has been so welcoming and helpful. I know I can ask anyone for help or advice, and they would do anything they can to help me. Job hunting during a pandemic was stressful, but I am so thankful for how everything worked out, allowing me to be back at St. Anthony’s teaching second grade.
Question: How was your first year teaching through the Urban Teachers program?
Julie Payne: My first year was, in large part, a learning experience for me. I was able to soak up a lot of different, new techniques and strategies that I was not taught during my undergrad experience. This year was a huge year of growth for me, and because of it, I felt more prepared for this weird virtual learning year that we’ve entered now.
Q: What were the challenges and your success stories?
JP: Some challenges that I faced were adapting my teaching processes for my students. When I student taught in undergrad, my host teacher did not engage in a lot of actual instruction. She would give students an assignment, talk about it for a couple of minutes, and then let them go on their way to work. Because of this, I modeled my teaching practice in a similar way, just being available to students if they needed help. When I started teaching in D.C. though, I found that my students needed more instruction and guidance. They needed constant engagement and stimulation, where they wanted to talk about and discuss the work/content. This is where a lot of my successes came in, though. This type of teaching allowed me to grow closer to my students and allowed me to better my pedagogical practices in a way that I wasn’t able to in undergrad. I felt like I was making a bigger impact on their education and could tell when I needed to adapt my teaching or approach.
Q: What did you do to adapt to virtual learning last spring?
JP: Before virtual learning back in March, we used Google classroom for a large majority of our assignments that required a computer in-person, such as extended writing assignments and essays. When we switched to all virtual, we transitioned everything to Google Classroom, so students were using a familiar platform. While we did not transition fully to synchronous classes that students had to login to, my co-teacher and I made ourselves available for virtual office hours for students to check into, if they needed more support or clarification about any assignments.
Q: With DC starting classes virtually, what things that you learned from last spring are you applying to this school year?
JP: Last year, we did not do any synchronous classes with students. My co-teacher and I tried a couple of times in the beginning, but there was no set time for class to occur, so students were not regularly logging in. Because of this, we decided to do one-on-one check-ins with students instead of actual classes. This year, we are doing synchronous classes with students, plus daily office hours and small group sections for specific students. My co-teacher and I are also working on creating more engaging lessons virtually for our students through various platforms, such as Zoom, Nearpod, Quizziz, etc., that we did not use as much last year.
Q: Is it more challenging starting off the year virtually?
JP: For actual lesson planning, it is a little easier starting off virtually because we had a couple of months to get started and work out some of the kinks from the spring semester. However, for actual classroom instruction, it is a little more difficult because I’m not as familiar with the students that I have now. I did teach one section of these same students last year, but it will be more difficult to build relationships with the other students, as virtual learning largely limits that one-on-one rapport you can build with a student. I’m hoping through different platforms and avenues during the school day, I will have opportunities to build that connection with students, even if we’re not in person.
Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?
JP: The thing that I enjoy most about teaching is whenever I can see that spark in a student’s eye when they finally make a connection or learn something new, especially a student whose favorite subject is not English. It makes me feel like I am making a positive impact on their educational experience, which is my main goal in teaching. I also enjoy the back and forth goofiness that I get to have with my students.
Q: What do you like about the Urban Teachers program?
JP: The Urban Teachers program has helped prepare me for the classroom in a way that my undergraduate experience did not. The level of rigor from the graduate school classes at Johns Hopkins, combined with the hands-on teaching experience and coaching that the residency year gave me is something that is unparalleled. I definitely feel more prepared to walk into any classroom and be able to teach any student, which is something that I did not feel so confident in when I graduated from undergrad.
Q: What do you like about teaching virtually?
JP: Teaching virtually gives me more of an opportunity to work with students one-on-one, with the way my school has set things up. It also gives me an opportunity to connect with other teachers and school personnel in a way that I wasn’t able to in person, as my school has really prioritized cross-curricular and cross-grade level collaboration and planning in the virtual world.
Question: As an ESL teacher, what challenges did you face last spring with distance learning?
Aimee McDonnell: The digital divide is a challenge for a large number of students. Providing chrome books, hot spots, and translation services on top of creating engaging content for our ESL students was a huge undertaking. Luckily, I am blessed to work at the only National School of Character in Kentucky. Our students, our staff, and our families are committed to each other and to overcoming challenges.
Q: How is this fall semester going as it starts virtually?
AM: We are back online and better than ever. I am always amazed at the resiliency of our students. Our teachers have gone above and beyond to reach every single child online. NTI 2.0 is providing so many exciting opportunities for our ESL population. We would love to be back in person, but for now, just seeing the kids back online makes all of the hard work worth it.
Q: What creative ways are you using to reach these students?
AM: Teachers are using interactive platforms and Bitmoji classrooms to capture students’ interest. They are planning culturally diverse lessons that include My Maps and CultureGrams so that all students have access to an equitable Education. We also do lots of fun and crazy things to get them to show up and keep them coming back. One of my favorite events this year has been our drive-in orientation. Each student was invited to come in their cars to receive Chromebooks and log on information. The parking lot was set up like a drive-in theatre, and our presentation for orientation was shared digitally so parents could watch it in their car. It is that kind of creative thinking that energizes our staff and students. I also consider myself honored that I get to do home visits during COVID. Following social distance and mask mandates has been challenging, but there is nothing more rewarding than helping people at home and getting a firsthand glimpse into their life.
Q: How will the ESL student population benefit once classes return to in person?
AM: Listening and speaking English are crucial to language development. Hearing conversations around you in English, and turning and talking with friends is invaluable. Some of it can be replicated online, but technology robs us of some of the natural conversations that happen during the day. You can’t replicate those additional organic interactions that happen in the cafeteria, on the playground, or even at the water fountain. Every student regardless of the language they speak needs human interaction for modeling.
Q: What do you enjoy about teaching ESL?
AM: The thing I love most about teaching ESL is that I am also the student. Each child has a unique experience that shapes who they are, and I have learned so much about the world through them. I also love being able to connect my faith with my pedagogy. Doing outreach with Catholic schools to bring acceptance for immigrants and refugees is just an added bonus.
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