Teaching in the time of COVID-19
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mrs. Julianna Kimbark, an Elementary School teacher in Poughkeepsie, New York, to discuss what it is like teaching Elementary-aged students during the time of COVID-19. Knowing Mrs. Kimbark for over 25 years, this ebullient and captivating 2nd grade teacher was a perfect candidate to speak about this unprecedented time and what it’s like to teach Elementary school during it.
When COVID-19 made the world go sideways in March of 2020, we had no idea what the future would hold for everyday life, let alone those tasked with educating today’s students. What would elementary school look like? How do you conduct a morning meeting from 25+ different locations? What do you when not all students have readily accessible internet at home? How do you help when you can’t come to a child’s side to do so, and what kind of success has been seen during these extraordinary times?
Posing my first question to Julianna, “What was it like from mid-March through June of 2020?” Chuckling, she explained that “The first two weeks, the district moved Spring Break and Memorial Day to mid-March, so there was no work on the part of the kids; students weren’t expected to work. Teachers were planning to emergency teach and had roughly two-to-three weeks to plan for virtual teaching.” Commenting on the likely stress associated with such a drastic change, Mrs. Kimbark went on to say that during the two-week break many teachers took professional development classes on Google Classroom. “I was already a pro at it.”, she explains, stating that she had already been using Google Classroom for a few years and that her students (from the 2019-2020 school year) were well familiarized with the ins and outs of the program. When pressed about what the district’s expectations were for teaching (as the stay-at-home orders were continually extended) she explained that, “Students were expected to have 30 minutes each of independent reading, writing, and math per day; 15-20 minutes each of science and social studies per week.” And that it was “Okay to do more.” with their classes. To help foster this suddenly-new method of teaching, her district purchased “all sorts of subscriptions”, such as www.raz-kids.com, to use as part of her students’ independent reading requirements. With all of this happening during these three months, she ensured that when she did meet with her whole class, there were “Fun Fridays”, built into their schedule, where movies were watched together.
Talk to any teacher and they’ll tell you that one of the biggest parts of their day, besides teaching itself, is planning. When asked about the largest adjustment to planning from March-June to now, Julianna stated it was planning for the hybrid model of teaching; where students were in school part time and remote-learning the other time. “Students are now in cohorts ‘A’ and ‘B’. Cohort A comes into the building on Mondays and Tuesday, Cohort B comes Thursdays and Fridays with the school given a deep cleaning on Wednesdays (and Saturdays) when nobody is in the building.” She stated that this method allows for Wednesdays to be “differentiated and self-guided” and a time for “independent development activities” for her class. “It’s basically planning for two classes and Wednesdays are not expected to be ‘live’.”
As we all adjust to this new normal, so have all teachers’ teaching styles. As a former Elementary classroom teacher and Science Educator (here at SML), I am always as hands-on as I can be. Obviously, this is not the case anymore and Julianna echoed that same sentiment when asked about the biggest adjustment to her teaching style. Laughing, she says, “I’m kind of a control freak; leading and doing everything.” A major change to any teacher’s methods for sure, but one the district has helped teachers like her meet. Continuing, she explains that “The district has given us recorded lessons which allow student to replay it before breaking into our small groups. I don’t have to take charge of EVERY lesson and (the recorded lessons) have helped me gauge where my students are even more than I imagined.”
With a change in teaching style comes learning what works and what needs improving, leading directly to the next question: What is the biggest issue with virtual teaching. Without hesitating, and laughing as she said it, came a one-word answer, “Wi-Fi.” Elaborating, “The lack of bandwidth doesn’t help either.” Clarifying she continued saying that it was the kids who were at a daycare or a place where Wi-Fi isn’t that good, that it creates choppy video feeds; something I am sure we are all familiar with now. “I record all my lessons after they’re taught.”, this allows her to upload them so they can return to them to if elaboration on a topic is needed, again, before the students break into smaller-group lessons with her. Yet amid all this craziness, and somewhat dark time for teachers, there is light and success.
As parents and their students adjust to what is now “normal”, there has been success seen at this level. Inequality exists in any average district and some do not have the same access to the internet many of us do. When pressed about looking for light in this dark time, Julianna stated that when the district “went on a spending spree”, purchasing Chromebooks for their students, they were also purchasing mobile hotspots. “Students who received free or reduced lunch were given priority to these items so they would have ready access to the internet and lessons being taught.” Mobile hotspots allowed students with no internet access to now have the ability to connect so they wouldn’t be “left out” of the learning process. Constant communication is essential to teachers, now more than ever, Mrs. Kimbark’s 2nd grade class is no exception. After the first day of this hybrid model, she reached out to the children to gauge how they were feeling as they adjusted, and 2nd graders don’t hold back. "My butt hurts, but it was a good day!" one said, clearly sitting down too much for their liking. "Two-thumbs up!" and "Today was the best first day of school I've ever had!" are two others, showing that like any organism on earth, students adapt, and what is strange will eventually become normal. What hit home in the most positive way was something that came at the behest of her principal who had asked for feedback from the all of the parents, “Mrs. K’s lessons are so engaging, I don’t want to leave for work!”, clearly Mrs. Kimbark is doing something so right that she’s engaged her students AND their parents.
Our world will never be the same, just like teaching, it will be forever changed. You can be certain that teachers like Mrs. Kimbark will be on the front line of what it means to adapt in education and teaching, ensuring that children are getting the best education possible during this part of human history.
It is with that, I give my most sincere and heartfelt “Thank you” to her and teachers everywhere. Every one of us wouldn’t be where we are without all of the work we see you do and all of the work you do behind the scenes.