While some school districts have started the year with distance learning, others have decided to fully reopen. And after seeing an increase of COVID cases in the last few weeks, some districts have rolled back their original decisions to return to in-person learning. As plans continue to change, teachers have to be quick to adapt their curriculum. This is hard for experienced teachers, but what's it like for new educators who are still finding their footing?
I spoke with two teachers, Cathy Nguyen and Whitney Lim. Nguyen's school in Los Angeles and Lim's school in Philadelphia both originally planned on going with a hybrid in-person and online learning model, but have now decided to start the year with remote learning. Nguyen and Lim discuss how they’re preparing for the fall term based on their school’s plans and what it’s like to start their careers in education during this time.
The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Cathy Nguyen, Kindergarten Associate Teacher
Second year teaching
Adan Barrera: What are your school's plans for the fall?
Cathy Nguyen: So we were originally going to do the hybrid learning system. But after Gavin Newsom's announcement, we're starting through distance learning. Since we're part of L.A. County, we won't be able to start in person until L.A. is off the list.
AB: So when you heard that your school was doing full remote learning, how did you feel about that?
CN: I was a little sad since I work with kindergarten [students]. It's a lot easier to teach them in person. A lot of the time last year, I had to physically hold their hand and help them form their letters because they're so young.
But I also felt relieved because if we’re exposed to one student, we're exposed to at least two or three people because, you know, their families. It'd be risky, especially because I live with my parents. It's risky for them if I'm constantly going to work and bringing home exposed germs.
AB: How effective do you think distance learning will be, considering kindergarten is very hands-on?
CN: It'll be somewhat effective. Our school did distance learning from March until June. But towards the end, a lot of the students were starting to get burnt out or disengaged in the Zoom lessons.
When we asked parents about it, they would say that the kids weren't feeling it. They didn't really want to see their friends through Zoom. And they missed school. I'm sure it's taken a toll on them. I can't imagine [what it’s like for] them to start school with a whole new class and new teachers through distance learning.
AB: How have you been preparing for this upcoming school year?
CN: We're trying to do more hands-on, creative things students could do with their parents. But it requires a lot of parent engagement. And I know not a lot of families have that opportunity because they're also working from home or they're an essential worker.
AB: Do you find yourself working more hours?
CN: Honestly, yeah, I do feel like I'm putting in more hours through distance learning. One of my coworkers said she worked from like 7 a.m. to midnight all the time. She would Zoom for six hours a day because she had three classes to teach. My principal told her that she shouldn't have done that because that's just too much for anyone to handle. But I think it’s because she’s really dedicated to her students.
AB: So when it comes to preparation, do you feel more stressed now?
CN: So before [COVID], we had a book of lesson plans, and we would kind of just follow that. But now it's like, "Oh, we can't do that" because some families won't have the materials and supplies that they need from home. It's a little bit harder because most traditional lessons aren't from a distance learning perspective.
So it's just been challenging because we want to be able to accommodate as many families as we can. It works — it just takes a little bit more time because we have to adjust it to the distance learning setup.
Whitney Lim, Third Grade Teacher
First year teaching
Editor’s note: Whitney Lim’s school originally planned to do hybrid online and in person classes. But the school administrators recently announced that they would start the school year completely online for the first month of school.
Adan Barrera: So what are your school’s new plans for the fall?
Whitney Lim: We're starting school on September 8, the day after Labor Day. It will be virtual through September. It might get extended, but at this point, all of September will be fully virtual.
AB: Before your school announced their change in plans, how did you feel about teaching a couple days in person?
WL: If that was what it would have had to be, I think I would have just been as safe as I could and trust in the families and the administration of the school to also handle things well.
When I was in South Bend over the summer, we were in person with our kids for our student teaching. We would make sure to sanitize our hands and the kids’ hands all the time. We would make sure that we wore masks all the time and remind them to wear masks all the time.
Hopefully we will get to do hybrid or some in person in the future, but I am glad that we're starting virtually. I think it will also be easier for families. Hybrid can be a lot more complicated.
AB: Are you still expecting students to reach academic benchmarks or have those changed?
WL: Of course, I would love for them to actually meet the benchmarks. But the reality is going to be that students are going to be behind either because they were already behind when COVID-19 hit or because of COVID-19. And unfortunately, I think COVID-19 has shown us how that gap increases. Because people now are hiring private tutors — even online tutors — to help their children. A lot of families at my school cannot afford that.
AB: On top of learning to teach in general, how much more have you had to learn, in terms of teaching remotely?
WL: I'm coming along. In some ways, I feel like I have a different angle as a young teacher because I use technology pretty regularly. I was a college student just a few months ago. And now, I'm a graduate student and took courses all summer that have been virtual. So I've experienced what it's like to be a student completely virtually.
I also know how to use technology versus some older teachers who might be like, "I just don't know how to use Google Classroom! I barely know how to use Facebook!" Not saying that all the teachers are like that, of course.
AB: How do you feel about being a completely new teacher during a pandemic?
WL: I think being a first-year teacher at any point would be terrifying, but also very exciting. Terrifying in that there's a lot of responsibility. But then exciting in that it's a job that I'm very passionate about. It's not just a job to me.
Of course, COVID-19, the pandemic, quarantine, hybrid teaching, virtual learning and all that, it just adds another layer. No one really knows what's going on, even teachers that have taught for decades. But it’s exciting in that this is kind of a step towards the future and learning how to utilize technology for good and for education — being able to see how students bounce back from challenges and learn in new ways.