Facing the Crisis: A Teacher Perspective

04/27/2020
Penny Pirri

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Several friends and acquaintances have asked me what it is like to teach in a virtual classroom. Quite a few have even mentioned that it must be easier than teaching in a physical classroom on campus. Well, I am here to tell you that in my opinion nothing could be further from the truth! Before I describe the glitches, joys, and unexpected silver linings of teaching Third Grade from my home, let me first take you back to several weeks ago.

On Friday, March 13, we received notice that Trinity Episcopal School would be closed for at least two weeks. We were not completely surprised, as we had been preparing throughout the week for a possible closure. We had put together lessons and activities for our students, and we had gathered glue sticks, scissors, pens, pencils, colored paper, and other materials for each child to take home. Our Lower School Division Head had made sure that every student in Lower School had access to either an iPad or a laptop. We made plans to teach virtually using Seesaw and Zoom. Although I have been teaching for over 30 years, I had previously used Seesaw twice. As for Zoom? I’m embarrassed to say that I had never even heard of it!

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Let me insert a little information about myself right here. I love to teach in the classroom; I love project-based learning; I love having discussions with the children and watching them interact with each other. I love seeing the spark in children’s eyes when they realize they understand how to solve a new problem. And, I love glitter! But, I am not innately tech-savvy, and my knowledge of how to use technology was very limited in mid-March of 2020. A colleague of mine summed it up with the analogy of a first year teacher who had spent the summer putting together lesson plans and gathering materials, so she was well-prepared for the beginning of school. She knows her content and has a variety of activities and projects planned. A couple of days before school starts, she is told that there is one thing she needs to know about her new teaching job. She will have to teach everything in Polish, a lovely language but totally foreign to her!

Needless to say, I was quite anxious about virtual teaching, but we had an option to attend Zoom and Seesaw training at the school the Monday before online learning launched. We were taught how to use Seesaw to make assignments and to get student responses. We were also shown how to use Zoom for “live” class meetings. I took copious and detailed notes and practiced making an assignment on Seesaw and scheduling a meeting on Zoom. The teachers who were already technology pros were an invaluable help. I left school on Monday afternoon, went home, and tried to create lessons on Seesaw and schedule a meeting on Zoom with little success. It was definitely panic time for me because we were to begin virtual learning the next morning. I called more tech savvy teachers for emergency help. For almost two hours, she held a one-on-one Zoom meeting with me using a shared screen to walk me through the steps of creating a lesson on Seesaw and scheduling a meeting on Zoom. It definitely helped me immensely, but I still only slept about three hours that night.

To make a long story short, my first meeting went fairly well. My Third Graders also helped by being patient and even giving me a few computer tips. During the first week, there were a few bumps as we all adjusted to virtual teaching, but my students, their parents, and my colleagues were all extremely supportive and understanding.

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There were a few other challenges which were actually quite humorous. Having a full class meeting with my Third Graders was like going on a roller coaster ride or sailing on choppy seas in a kayak. As I looked at my laptop screen, this is what I saw: children jumping up and down, children trying to do headstands, children munching on cereal in bed, children walking their dogs, children changing their virtual backgrounds so it looked like they were in San Francisco or outer space, children making their screen flip so that their faces were upside down, and even children doing cartwheels! In the physical classroom, I have heard all sorts of things from my students about their home life, but now I was getting to see all sorts of things!

Throughout the first two weeks of my distance learning journey, I spent the hours between 6:30 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. in front of the screen creating assignments, answering emails, attending Zoom meetings, reading and checking over student responses, and learning something new every single hour. I am used to walking around the classroom helping my children, so it was a bit frustrating trying to help some of my students understand some concepts through virtual teaching. Once I mastered using the screen share on Zoom, this got easier.

A friend of mine recently asked if teaching virtually had gotten easier. I told her that it was a bit easier because I am now in a routine, which teachers truly crave. My schedule is probably similar to many other teachers. I sit down in my “classroom” at 8:00 a.m.; I check for any new posted responses from students, create new assignments on Seesaw, and attend to numerous emails. Between Monday through Thursday, I host or attend around 16 Zoom meetings. In between the Zoom meetings, I check and respond to student work. After the school day ends at 4:00, I continue to check my students' work and read their delightful writing. Most of my students record their voices and read out loud what they have written or explain how they solved a math problem. It is a true joy to hear their sweet messages. I look forward to the Zoom meetings with my students because we get to see each other. By now, most have learned proper Zoom etiquette!

As I continue to educate myself through webinars and navigate through this new world of technology, I am amazed at the abundance of ways to use Seesaw and Google slides. Hence, one of the silver linings is that I have learned a lot about technology that I probably would not have taken the time to pursue without this experience. While nothing can truly take the place of being in the classroom, my new skills will enhance my teaching once we are back on campus. As Dorothy repeated in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home,” and part of my home is back in my classroom at Trinity Episcopal School with my kids. I can’t wait!

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