During a Teacher Appreciation Week unlike any before it, Lincoln County educators reflected on how their work has changed during the coronavirus emergency.
Teachers face similar challenges. Not only must they attempt to implement distance learning for students with different home situations and different levels of access to technology, they must also account for and help students cope with drastic changes to daily life and routines.
From virtual field trips to an array of digital tools to personal delivery of instructional materials to a more intensive focus on student well-being, local teachers are finding creative ways to meet these challenges and fulfill their commitments to their students. Teacher Appreciation Week was May 4-8.
Heather Webster, an English teacher with Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, has found students more willing to open up.
“In the daily routine of teenagers’ lives, they often share only the surface of their thoughts with teachers,” Webster said. “In small group Google Meets, some of my students have engaged in discussions about their worries and concerns – worries and concerns that we are all feeling.”
“It’s given me a chance to talk with them person-to-person rather than teacher-to-student, and I think that’s a positive experience,” Webster said.
Webster tries to encourage her students through her distance learning classes.
“Teachers don’t need to be the enforcer of the rules, the keeper of grades, or on a pedestal as the expert in the room; rather, they need to be seen as facilitators of learning, encouraging students to think and to participate in the world around them,” Webster said.
For Webster, a challenging part of distance learning is losing touch with students.
“I know they are struggling with the new ‘normal,’ but it’s hard to offer guidance when our contact is so limited,” Webster said.
Webster delivers instructional materials to students through Google Classroom and uses Google Meet for weekly face-to-face time. She creates paper assignments for students without internet access and students who need or prefer hard copies for other reasons.
“Some students started online and then felt overwhelmed and asked for paper copies. Other students have asked for activities that don’t require a screen simply because of the immense increase in screen time that is the result of online learning,” Webster said.
Audrey Ennamorati, another English teacher at MVHS, is mixing “fun” assignments – like an analysis of a favorite song and a passion project based on each student’s interests and strengths – with more traditional work.
“All of my classes have been assigned some writing, from a freshman memoir to expository essays for some juniors and seniors to rhetorical analysis pieces for AP English Language students,” Ennamorati said. She believes it is important for students to keep up their writing skills.
Ennamorati has tried to make assignments and supporting materials as accessible to students as possible. She primarily uses Google Classroom, in addition to printed materials delivered to students.
Like Webster, Ennamorati tries to connect with students beyond academics. She misses her students and worries about them.
“To help with that, I set up a discussion thread called ‘What’s on Your Mind?’ as a place for students to just communicate, express feelings, or even vent,” she said.
Medomak Middle School’s Libbie Winslow teaches visual arts to grades seven and eight.
“I remind the students to just have fun and create art with whatever they have,” Winslow said. She uses Google Classroom, which allows students to communicate with her and post their work.
Co-worker Fallyn Adams, who teaches fifth grade, tries to offer something for everyone. She has 21 students, each with a unique home situation and each with different access to resources.
“I have gathered and sent home novels of interest for students based on conversations. While buses deliver materials to in-town students, I have delivered materials to our out-of-town students,” Adams said.
Adams uses a variety of digital tools to connect with students. She reads novels in 10- to 15-minute segments, offers a community chat space for students, hosts weekly science discussions with the program Mystery Doug, and teaches math with the program Edmentum.
Adams said the most rewarding part of distance learning is being able to check in with students by videoconference.
“I miss them. I teach in a self-contained classroom because I love to build relationships with students. I enjoy seeing their productive struggle that ends with that tremendous feeling of success. I miss those ‘Ah ha!’ moments,” Adams said.
Adams does not want to overwhelm parents or students with distance learning.
“There is an abundance of material available for use, but it can be too much. Finding the ‘just right’ amount for each family has taken some work,” Adams said.
At tiny South Bristol School, Sara Flewelling teaches grades two through four. A teacher for 15 years, she is holding classes online and using Google Classroom to distribute assignments.
“In a very short amount of time, we learned a lot of new skills,” she said of teachers navigating distance learning.
Flewelling works with students one-on-one and encourages student participation every day through a shared topic, just as she does in her classroom.
“I put out a new share topic and the kids jump in. We’re trying to keep some of the normal things they are used to doing in the classroom,” Flewelling said.
A strong relationship between teacher and students helps with distance learning.
“They’re familiar with me and that is helpful. If this had happened at the beginning of the year, I think it would have been a much more difficult transition,” Flewelling said.
The instruction differs depending on the time of week. “Every Friday I try to do something more fun, while Monday is more instruction-based,” she said.
Flewelling is partnering with Sarah Gladu, director of education and citizen science at Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust, to plan a virtual field trip.
Before the closure, the class had planned a field trip to a Coastal Rivers property. Now, they will take the trip through Zoom.
“The students are excited. It’s not quite the same thing as going there, but it is something to look forward to,” Flewelling said.
Flewelling said teachers, parents, and students are all dealing with different responsibilities than they are accustomed to.
“It is a different kind of busy. With kids at home, you’re juggling work and being there for your own kids, making sure their emotional health is where it needs to be,” Flewelling said.
“I certainly miss the kids. I love my job,” she said.
At Whitefield Elementary School, Principal Mark Deblois said the closure of school facilities due to COVID-19 has presented innumerable challenges for students, families, and school staff.
“Distance learning without ample time to prepare is a huge undertaking for all involved,” Deblois said.
In addition to the academic components of distance learning, Deblois said, school closures have had an emotional impact on children and their families. He credited RSU 12 social worker Andrea Marecaux with responding to these needs.
“Andrea has truly been outstanding in her efforts to remain connected to students and families,” Deblois said.
Marecaux tries to maintain a connection with every student. “Not all of our families have internet and sometimes it takes a couple calls, but we are connecting in whatever way we can,” she said.
She often checks in with families outside regular school hours because some students have to care for younger siblings while their parents work during the day.
The school district continues to feed students – it has delivered 16,000 meals since the schools closed. Educational materials go out with the twice-weekly meal deliveries.
“We are really working with families to provide basic services to them,” Marecaux said.
“There is this pattern of calling this the new normal, but it is not normal at all. We are trying to educate through a crisis,” Marecaux said. “We have families that are incredibly stressed out and anxious and kids recognize that, and that is something we need to be aware of and help them out with.”