Virginia Educators Talk About How Living and Working During COVID Changed Them
September 23, 2021
September 23, 2021
Every year for the first 12 I taught, I’d build friendships with my students, call each one’s parent/guardian, and keep in mind that their home life probably wasn’t like mine. Unfortunately, by the first benchmark test every year, students easily became data points on a spreadsheet. My planning time was swallowed up by remediation. Grade level meetings with administration were crunching numbers on “who was a bubble kid” and “who had never passed this SOL before and might not this year either.”
At first, we viewed our students as individuals, with different learning styles. But for three-quarters of the year they were all bundled into taking one test.
However, the last 18 months have kept my students’ individuality at the top of my objective list each day. For the last two years, I’ve been an elementary STEM teacher. The STEM curriculum is very hands-on; you have to try and keep trying. I loved teaching it! But what to do when students must do it at home with limited materials and limited or no help? My goal became reaching out to students to make sure they were “trying.” I didn’t care if they ever achieved the goal or how they did it. I just wanted them to try.
In 2020-21, I made building relationships with my students my top objective. When we started Google Meets, most of my K-5 kids just wanted to explore how they looked on video. So I switched gears and taught them how to use the camera/video on their Chromebook. We did projects with that and, while the goals were achieved, they all looked different. Then class time morphed into show-and-tell. Pets, sisters/brothers, and even some pet chickens made an appearance. My goals included them being proud of their home and the people/animals who occupied it with them.
As students slowly made their way back into the classroom, I had all these experiences with them virtually that made a big impact on our relationship. I finished the school year incorporating their emotional and social wellbeing. I worked more with the school counselors, in those months, than I did in all my previous years combined! It was the first school year I felt like I really knew my students and kept them the primary goal the entire year.
As I start what may be a “normal” year, I worry about test scores again being education’s goal. I don’t want to go back to seeing kids as “bubbles,” too low to remediate, or “they’ll pass so let them be.” I want to envision, and keep discovering, that every student is different. I want my objectives achieved, but to be excited when they all look different.
Georgeanne Lavery of the Pulaski Education Association, an elementary STEM teacher
Professionally, COVID had me in a constant state of “pivot.” Starting the year virtually, changing online platforms, being told that I was going to teach concurrently rather than virtually: It was always changing. Having students with behavioral needs made it that much tougher. Dealing with constant change causes huge disruption to those of us who strive on consistency. It definitely challenged me and made me think outside of the box. I felt like a first-year teacher all over again!
Personally, I began dating my now-husband (we got married in August) in January before COVID hit hard, and I feel we were able to strengthen our relationship during the shutdown as my profession went virtual and we had to adjust for his. It brought us closer together.
Alison MacArthur McLaughlin of the Loudoun Education Association, a special education dean
Early in COVID, I remember talking to my fiancée about having a more empathetic understanding of what people with anxiety and depression deal with continuously. My first outing to the local grocery was a great lesson in social anxiety—jumping every time someone cleared their throat, worrying about every person I passed, and fearing that I may be doing something to endanger others—all while trying to remember I’m lucky to be the shopper and not the frontline employee without the option to work from home. Later came profound disappointment as I watched many people willfully ignore and perpetuate systemic racism, as well as the pandemic itself.
There were pockets of joy and inspiration, though: Cafeteria staff and administrators distributing food daily outside of neighborhood schools; teachers delivering materials and supplies to students’ homes; and counselors endlessly on calls to support students as best they could. It was beautiful to see educators rushing to the aid of their communities, despite their own struggles. So, I think I came out of this with a renewed appreciation for my colleagues, and certainly stronger relationships through the shared experience of the past two years. I remember the strange feeling of meeting with co-workers from home, becoming suddenly so intimate with people I’d only seen one side of before. After only talking at work or maybe a happy hour, I’m now meeting their pets, children, spouses, and relatives. And I can’t remember how long it was before I stopped thinking it odd that I was meeting students and co-workers from my bedroom, but it wasn’t as long as I would have expected.
Miles Carey of the Arlington Education Association, a high school assistant principal
It would be such a waste if a global pandemic left us unchanged. Life has definitely been different for the past 18 months, but I came to welcome those changes! For one, I decided to just dive in deeply to our small hobby farm: we expanded our menagerie, learned how to process chickens and hogs, experienced the joy of raising baby goats and turkeys, and lived the motto, “Great memories end with dirty clothes.”
Another thing COVID-19 has taught me is who I really want to be as a teacher: I’ve always wanted to push my students to work and achieve beyond what they thought possible, but now I feel such a re-kindled passion to truly help them achieve a strong self of sense and worthiness. I know they are coming back to “normal” school this year after a very challenging experience—because we all are!—and I want them more than ever before to know how much I value them, both who they are and who they want to be. Maybe that’s what’s changed the most: I learned who I really am, and I want to share the power of knowing oneself with all I encounter.
Kristina Childress of the Bedford County Education Association, a high school English teacher
I learned to adjust to serve our students in any circumstances. It was easy to maneuver in between the walls of my classroom, where I could provide love and guidance in an environment I controlled. We put resources at our students’ fingertips, often literally at their doorsteps so they’d continue to grow.
A lesson learned is insight earned. As I assisted with decisions for my district to be safe and move forward, I thought about the impact on our students. I changed my reaction from one step at a time to skipping steps to keep students and staff safe: urgency meant that we had to plan for the rest of the year. I helped with food and resource distribution, and Facetimed and Zoomed with students and parents to make sure everyone was doing well. We learned a lot about each other’s favorite books and dishes. I did quick meal Zooms to make dinnertime more fun and at our school we did everything from paint- and read-ins to drive-in theatres. Often three generations of families participated.
Leading with love and giving grace isn’t just something we say. It’s been something we’ve provided. As we’ve experienced, change is inevitable.
Katina Harris of the Richmond Education Association, an elementary school teacher
Life changed at the drop of a hat—we went from being out for a day or a week to “You can’t come back.” One result of not being in school is that people learned a greater appreciation for the work done by those of us who work with families. It went from, “Oh, you do mindfulness and stress management training? That’s sweet” to “Are our kids staying emotionally healthy in all this? It’s very important.” I also think people also learned to appreciate the necessary work done by my fellow education support professionals more. The people who made the technology work, the food service workers who prepared meals for every child, the bus drivers who delivered that food and school supplies, the custodians who kept buildings clean and safe—they were the ones that kept the schools going and the children learning.
What we do is all about relationship-building and we work with families from many different cultures. Building those relationships became even more challenging, as in some cultures one-on-one in-person conversations are so important. We had to learn how to do our work all over again. We also spent even more time helping families who were facing eviction because of lost jobs.
My kids were all frontline staff who had to be at work every day of the pandemic, so my house became where all the grandchildren spent their days. I can’t understand how teachers could teach if they had their own children in the house, too!
Alyce Pope of the Fairfax Education Association, a family services specialist
During COVID, Zoom sessions replaced the development of in-person relationships. Platforms such as Canvas, Google Classroom, and Schoology replaced writing learning targets on blackboards, waiting to use copiers, or coming home covered in chalk dust. After-school activities were cancelled, interscholastic athletics were adjusted, and for the first time in my memory there was an intentional focus on our students’ mental health. Those of us who remember when education was more than just a standardized test score found ourselves rejoicing in the cancellation of SOL testing in 2020, only to see that hydra re-emerge to justify a return to “in-person” instruction or to confirm the incendiary idea of “learning loss” when every student was surviving the Standards of Living.
In addition, there are COVID’s personal effects. People lost loved ones who had no comforting hand to clasp. I can vividly recall sleepless nights, riddled with anxiety and fear that my aging parents would catch this deadly virus after a family member in our bubble tested positive. Such stressors couldn’t help but affect us professionally as we continued to uphold our individual calling of public education service.
We need to educate ourselves, our families, and our communities about the need to vaccinate, facemask, and mitigate. We need to heed CDC guidelines in classrooms and other indoor gatherings, including the voting booth this November when we must elect a pro-education, pro-child, pro-health leaders.
Joseph Emerson of the Newport News Education Association, a high school AP/Intro psychology, sociology, and government teacher
Like many other teachers, I had to learn to lead an almost entirely virtual classroom during the pandemic. Changing my practices to accommodate Google Meets and online instructional delivery and assessment led to some important reflection about what real learning looks like. Being forced to reinvent tried-and-true strategies and activities helped me finally realize that skills are more important than memorized facts (and are harder to fake if a student is cheating!).
But more importantly, I was forced to reflect on my role as a teacher. Since I couldn’t replicate the sage-on-the stage model that had worked so well for me in the past, I had to focus on how I could connect to students in more individual ways. I see now that I spent the first part of my career as a government teacher convinced that my job was to teach kids how government works. By the middle of my career, I had embraced the idea that I need to inspire kids to be involved in our democracy. And while I haven’t abandoned those goals, I hope my final years in the classroom will be about finding those kids who need me most and figuring out how to help them. It’s too bad it took a global pandemic to make me fully internalize these teaching basics, but hopefully my classroom will be an even better learning environment when the kids finally return to it this fall.
Renee Serrao of the Chesterfield Education Association, a high school government teacher
March 12, 2020 changed my life. We were all told to stay home, but I knew my students still needed to be taught. I would have to teach from home. What? How? With what supplies? Doing my job got a lot more challenging. We had to be trained on a new online learning system and teach with computers.
I wasn’t too concerned at first, but that quickly changed when COVID started killing so many people that hospitals didn’t have room for people with other illnesses. It was dismal to watch the news. The world was in trouble. I didn’t get to see my students again—most of them didn’t attend Zoom classes after school closed in March.
My church shut down, along with many of my other favorite places to go. No planes, trains, and movie theaters, no beach for the whole summer. My mother was unable to visit her brother in the nursing care facility he was in.
When last school year started, I was more stressed more than any other school year ever, even my first year. How was I going to do this? My response…just do it. And it was a challenge teaching kindergarteners how to read and write. I found out many students didn’t have pencils, crayons, paper, or books in their homes. But we danced, sang, shared stories, and learned. Students loved seeing each other daily on Zoom, and I tried to make the instructions as normal to classroom life as possible.
Have I been impacted? Yes! I gained unwanted pounds. I wear a face mask everywhere I go, even if it breaks out my face and fogs up my glasses. People still don’t hug like they used to, and we don’t shake many hands anymore, either. I didn’t go to a restaurant until March 2021—and I didn’t want to go then. I got the vaccination in March and April.
Our schools reopened with 100 percent face-to-face instruction. However, a new strand of the coronavirus is taking more lives daily. My life is about to change…again.
Barbeta Terry of the Portsmouth Education Association, a kindergarten teacher
When the 2020-21 school year began, I was the only one in my classroom. My students were virtual, and I used the school division-approved platforms of Canvas and Google Meet. That went on until February, when we started a hybrid learning model in which I taught students concurrently in person and virtually.
All that made at least some of my colleagues and me feel like we were first-year teachers again. We had a steep learning curve as we adapted to new instructional platforms and technologies and using them effectively. Having said that, we became more proficient in our use of technology and learned how to use platforms and programs that will enhance our work with students and their families.
Personally, my wife and I spent a lot more time at home, but felt fortunate that we could both work from there when so many others faced job loss and economic hardship.
Jeremy Utt of the Stafford Education Association, a middle school math teacher
When COVID closed our schools, I found myself building and flying the airplane at the same time. My first challenge was to ensure all 1,200 students in my building would have a laptop; second was to provide and prepare laptops for teachers and staff to work remotely; and third was maintaining mitigation strategies and wearing PPE while meeting in person with parents and students needing technical support.
As a true extrovert, the emotional impact of not being able to visit family, friends or do things spontaneously was the hardest thing to deal with. I went from shopping in person to shopping online, and I couldn’t do the little things I usually did for self-care because businesses were closed.
When school began again in-person in August, it was so good to see everyone interacting again. I’d taken the lessons learned in the pandemic, both providing technical support and advocating for fellow union members, and tweaked them to adjust to the current learning environment. Although I feel better prepared to handle what’s ahead, I must take care of myself. I’m still ordering my groceries online and I’ve resumed some of my self-care routines, but the best part is that I can now socialize with family and friends.
Gwen Edwards of the Prince William Education Association, a technical support specialist
While most people don’t have much good to say about the COVID-19 pandemic, here are five potential silver linings for our schools that have come out of the trauma of the last 18 months from Patrick Quinn, a parenting expert at Brainly, an online learning platform: