Today, even with major school districts reopening all over the country and added funds from the Biden administration, there are still millions of students not in classrooms or in hybrid classes. A recent study shows that more students are experiencing high levels of stress and pressure and students are also less engaged in learning. YR Media reached out to students across the country and captured students’ experiences with virtual learning through “Zoomiversary: Schools on Screen.”
Teachers are also experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress. We reached out to two first-year teachers about the challenges they have encountered in distance learning and how they are staying positive and energetic as they close in on the end of the school year.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
ALLYSON RAFFERTY, SAN GORGONIO MIDDLE SCHOOL, BEAUMONT, CA
Denise Tejada: Can you tell me what this past year has been like as this is your first year teaching?
Allyson Rafferty: I would say that as a young and new teacher, that I've been in an especially fortunate situation where I haven't needed to unlearn a lot of the traditional teaching methods and I also come from a background of online learning. I would say overall this experience has been a learning one for everyone, because not only are you trying to teach through technology and people are learning how to use their chrome books or their phones or their laptops, but people are also learning about what the expectations are for online education because there are a lot of different opinions on what this year is and how much you can get out of it.
DT: Before becoming a teacher you were a student taking virtual classes. How much of that prepared you to teach online?
AR: I knew what to expect because of my past experiences. The few main things that I expected was an increased role of responsibility of the student to keep track of their own learning. I also expected greater equity gaps with online learning. And finally, something that I expected was a sense of hopelessness from some of the students because they weren't receiving the feedback and the interaction that they normally would.
DT: How much of your teaching style have you had to change?
AR: I would say if I was teaching in person that I would be teaching differently. My priorities in the classroom have definitely shifted. Every day in class, I do emphasize the collaboration time, and so there is a good amount of 5 to 10 minutes where we're talking about our lives and we're talking about how we're doing or our opinions on things. And it's not necessarily science or content related, but because we're able to have that time of connection, I'm seeing that when we do go into the science discussions, when we do go into the content discussions, that we are able to talk to each other.
That being said, it's not working for everyone. So my classes are anywhere from 30 to 40 students and on an average class day, I only see 15 to 20 participating. And so that is a large portion of my class that I'm not seeing. Those are the students that are especially suffering, because not only are they not getting the content, but they're also not getting the socialization by being in class. And so I really feel for those students. But the students that are there and are participating, I am seeing learning happening. I am seeing happiness. And that really does bring joy to my heart.
DT: What are some techniques that you have learned to get kids engaged?
AR: So some techniques that I've found really center around two main ideas. One is preparation and the second is expectation. For students to feel prepared to share out, I give them enough time to think about their questions and let them know that they're going to be expected to share this out and then posting in chat who I'm expecting to share out.
The second thing that I focus on is the expectation of how to share out, because in a virtual space, especially if you don't have everyone's cameras on, you can't tell who wants to speak. What I've found is that if I ask them to type in chat or to raise their hands and I create a list of people, then we can have a smooth conversation that flows smoothly.
DT: How would you describe this past year for you as a teacher?
AR: I would say it's definitely been a roller coaster and sometimes I'm riding this roller coaster and it's terrifying and sometimes I'm having a blast. It really has been a whirlwind of a year.
There are positives about teaching online and there are also just positives that are inherent to teaching, and so I still enjoy teaching, I still enjoy the students. .... [But] there are terrifying moments every time a student tells me that their loved one is in the hospital due to COVID-19 and then, wondering how much should I expect of them as a teacher? Like, does it really matter if they finish their assignment if right now they're worried about their loved one?
WHITNEY LIM, ST. HELENA-INCARNATION CATHOLIC SCHOOL, PHILADELPHIA, PA
Denise Tejada: Did you ever think your first year as a teacher would be done through a computer?
Whitney Lim: No, so I'm in a program [where] I'm getting my master's in education and doing classroom teaching. So we had classes this summer to prepare us for the school year and what you would do when you were in person. And I think everyone kind of knew there was a potential for hybrid or virtual instruction, but no one thought it would last this long.
I think one good thing about virtual teaching for me is that as a young person and as a student who had to finish undergrad on Zoom and then do a whole summer of grad classes on Zoom, I know how to use tech and feel very comfortable doing Google Classroom and Zoom and all the different platforms that my kids use.
But it definitely is hard not having any connection with my kids or a classroom culture. One thing I found with virtual teaching is it just takes a lot longer to do material — to make sure your kids are on the right page. For me, I have to [ask] every kid to hold up their book or show me what's on your desk. But it just takes a lot longer and then technical difficulties. They can't hear me or the Wi-Fi is breaking. I think [it’s] hard to be energized about teaching when it doesn't feel like a lot of teaching or learning is happening. It's chaos for everyone.
DT: Can you talk about some of the challenges you have seen and faced during this first year?
WL: I think the hardest thing is kids not being able to interact with each other. Everything that happens in our Zoom room is technically school time and there needs to be a teacher there. So I think that it's really hard that they don't get any free time with each other to joke around. The fun part of school is taken out. It's all learning and there's no recess time, lunchtime, no hanging out with friends. That's just not possible at all on Zoom.
I think just in general, the motivation to keep morale up. It can be really easy to fall behind once you are distracted for one or two school days. Once kids are behind, sometimes it's hard to get them caught up again. In some ways, virtual school moves quickly and in some ways, it’s really slow and has a slog.
I would love schools to be able to open for the social, emotional aspect. I think it would benefit everyone to be able to have a little bit [of] in person time.
Since our interview with Whitney Lim, her third-grade class has gone back to in-person classes. Allyson Rafferty's school will be going into hybrid learning on April 1st.