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Teacher Heroes and Remote Learning During COVID-19

Teacher heroes instructing child on online platform

Due to fears of spreading the COVID-19 virus, most schools in the United States are turning to online learning programs. At the time of writing, many have now been closed over a month with no end in sight—a situation that affects over 55 million K-12 students and millions more university students. Let’s recognize a few of the teacher heroes who are creating a new remote learning paradigm on the fly.

Teacher Heroes and Remote Learning During COVID-19

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has become a daily reality for all of us. COVID-19, flatten the curve, stay-at-home orders, N95 face masks…we are all learning a terrifying new vocabulary. Listening to the 24-hour news cycle only feeds our fear as we try to create a new normal.

Not surprisingly, this has led to challenges for students adapting to an entirely new model of remote instruction and learning, as well as obstacles faced by teachers, administrators, custodians, and nutrition workers who support them. As the adults of this country struggle with uncertainty, the impact on our children is magnified. Hence, educators have an even larger role in supporting them.

In times like these, it’s a wonderful opportunity to recognize those who are surpassing expectations. Those who are leading the charge, innovating new methods, and finding ways to reach out, regardless of the difficulties involved. In the words of the immortal Mr. Rogers, let’s “look for the helpers.” Let’s look for the teachers who are inspiring and supporting our students as we get through this together.

Closing the Technology Gap

One of the first challenges faced by teachers was simply being able to connect. Teachers had to identify the technological situations of their students and organize their classes in completely new ways. Some school districts already had students using laptops or tablets in their studies and living in households with a stable internet connection. However, many have not, and this has led to massive mobilizations of new technology.

Boston Public Schools (BPS) are just one example of the heroic lengths school systems have undertaken during COVID-19. Purchasing an additional 20,000 Chromebooks, BPS provided a laptop to every child without access to a computer at home. They have also teamed up with Comcast to supply two free months of internet access to families in need.

Another example comes from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—the second-largest school district in the U.S. Partnering with Verizon, the LAUSD has ensured all students have internet access, potentially affecting 100,000 students. The LAUSD is also making an emergency investment of $100 million for computers, internet connectivity, and additional training.

Childcare and Nutrition

With the large-scale closing of schools, access to instruction is only part of the support that teacher heroes provide. Two other major needs that they meet are childcare and nutrition. School closures are highlighting the inequities that already exist regarding these aspects. Students whose parents are unable to stay at home and the 22 million children nationwide who depend on free breakfast and lunch programs are among those hit the hardest. This requires many teacher heroes to do double duty, splitting their time between digital classroom instruction and childcare and meal distribution assistance.

In Seattle, over 25% of the School District’s 54,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. This requires the mobilization of 40 to 50 drive-through “grab-and-go” meal distribution facilities for families who need it. In addition, some proactive schools and teacher heroes put together backpacks full of food for at-risk students on the last day of classes.

Curriculum Development & Collaboration

Across the country, teachers are looking to colleagues with expertise in remote learning strategies and technologies for mentorship and collaboration. They rely on each other for support and guidance as they try and implement remote learning programs that don’t yet exist. Even with technology in place, teachers face the overwhelming task of transferring lesson plans into a format that works for online instruction.

Carly Berwick, a teacher in Bergen County, New Jersey, describes how she was also tasked with creating two weeks of online lesson plans in case she falls ill. Despite the extra work, Berwick notes that “In a strange way, we are excited, though exhausted, to take our existing curriculum and try something new.” Fortunately, this is an attitude that is being seen across the country.

In San Francisco, Caitlin Mitchell is an English Language Arts teacher and curriculum designer who realized early on that teachers were going to need a lot of help. Mitchell was quick to step up to help by creating free online tutorials showing how to shift to distance learning. “As soon as things started to change and schools started to close, I noticed a lot of teachers in our community who, all-of-a-sudden, were thrown into this new online learning environment. So, I thought to myself, ‘What can I do?’” Her efforts have been inspirational, providing a needed “life raft” for teachers lost in the sea of change taking place.

Communication & Engagement

The relationships between teachers, students, and families have never been so important. Teachers across the nation are reaching to forge stronger ties with both students and their families. Their role is to determine what the student and the family may need in order to learn from home. Not only may this include computer and internet access, but it also may include food and childcare as noted above.

One teacher hero, a language arts teacher named Laura Murphy, has managed to find a positive in the situation by building new bridges. “We are bonding with parents and students in such a deeper way. I have spoken more with parents that normally wouldn’t respond much to parent contact. It has been wonderful to have a stronger line of communication and work together toward the same goal.”

Mental Health & Wellness

Take a worldwide pandemic, add a complete change of daily routine, and mix in isolation and boredom. Together, it’s the perfect recipe for anxiety and depression in an adult, let alone a child. Many teacher heroes are finding unique ways to stay in touch with students and help keep their spirits up.

Leslie Greenberg, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher in Philadelphia, was deeply affected by the thought of her students’ isolation and decided to do something about it. “At this point, it’s mental health.” She is currently recruiting teachers, parents, and community members to videotape themselves reading the first five minutes of their favorite book. Releasing one per week, she hopes to inspire her students to take solace in reading.

Another Philadelphia teacher, Julius Brown, also felt compelled to reach out to the students in his music classes. He developed an online music class “Mr. Brown’s Sing-A-Long and Music Class” using Facebook to post videos of him and his son singing as they would in a normal class.

Connecting with older students is especially difficult as they can hide in the digital world, ducking both their assignments and a teacher’s attempt to contact them. To keep his students engaged, Michael Doggett, a teacher in Clarksburg, Maryland, is creating rap videos. “Right now, my way of connecting with students is through my hip-hop program. Maybe look at this as an opportunity to really do something that we have never tried.”

Special Needs

Perhaps the area of education receiving the least attention is one in need of the most support. With teachers focused on how to transition students to an online environment, kids with special needs have been left behind. Compounding the situation, parents are confused about how to implement study plans without the necessary accommodations for children with disabilities.

Ann Hiebert is a special education teacher in St. Louis whose students have a variety of intellectual disabilities. This teacher hero is connecting with her students by emailing videos of normal classes with the intention of maintaining a daily routine. One way she is adapting to delivering education at home has required a change in thinking. Instead of adapting lessons for her students, she’s “trying to be more of a resource to parents.” Shifting her focus to parental support, she is now making videos that illustrate how she works with students in her class.

Other Education Heroes

A shout out to all the teacher heroes would not be complete without acknowledging a multitude of other education helpers. These include the administrators, custodians, and nutrition workers. Without their services and efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic could have been far worse for educators and students.

Another group of heroes is the educational solution providers that have contributed free products and services. These resources are key to helping our educators and parents deliver instructional and emotional support. From anxiety-reducing software applications to curriculum and instruction platforms, these companies have stepped up when needed.

Finally, this article would not be complete without also recognizing the superhuman efforts of parents and family members. These are the people truly on the front-lines, adapting as best they can to new ways of working, living, and supporting their children.

A last word…

Teacher heroes around the country are going above and beyond in support of their students. Charged with the nearly impossible task of transforming education delivery for 55 million students in less than a month, they’ve excelled at their jobs. While the situation is still unfolding and the future unknown, one thing is certain. The teachers noted in this story are part of the vanguard of an educational revolution. Future educators will reminisce about this time as a turning point in educational history. Judging from what we’re seeing so far, our children are in good hands.

What are some other ways you’ve recognized our teacher heroes going above and beyond? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to tell us what you think. We’d love to hear from you!

iStock image: Maria Symchych-Navrotska

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