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Thank a Teacher

by on May 11, 2020 5:00 AM

One of my former students was having one of those days. She posted a picture of her son last week on social media, his T-shirt pulled up over his face, his little body crumbled to the floor.  “That’s it” she said.  “We can’t do this homeschooling thing today. I am not a teacher.”  The frustration of trying to keep up with school work, manage the emotions of so much change and trying to do so with kids of different ages and needs – all while trying to manage a family and a business —  had finally hit the breaking point.

That led me to my “people who are doing good” focus for this week. Social media is full of parents and kids posting jokes and memes and “We aren’t cut out for this home-schooling thing.” But what about the teachers? Professionals thrown into an unprecedented environment in which to teach young people. Teachers across the country shifting their instructional methods to remote learning and being expected to meet the needs of our nations’ children — and to do that with their own individual family situations.

I reached out to some teachers to find out. What is it really like for elementary or middle school or high school teachers? I could not have found a better example of the goodness in the hearts of people. (Note: these interviews were conducted using technology.)

Carrie Hovis, a fourth grade teacher at Mount Nittany Elementary School in the State College Area School District has 21 students in her class.  

“Typically my day starts around 7:30 a.m. and I try not to check emails after 9 p.m., so I can turn it off and sleep,” said Hovis.  

She spends up to three hours on Zoom each day with her students; sometimes the whole class but at other times with students individually or in small groups. “It usually takes 1-3 hours a day to check and respond to online work and respond to emails,” she said.  

In addition, there are faculty meetings, district meetings and collaboration with other fourth grade teachers across the district. Hovis also spends up to three hours each day planning assignments, recording and uploading videos and grading assignments. “I couldn’t do this without my fourth grade team, both in my school and across the district,” said Hovis. “We can’t do this alone and we accomplish so much together.” 

Steve Klein is a teacher with 25 years of experience. He teaches fourth grade at Bellefonte Elementary in the Bellefonte Area School District. Bellefonte Elementary uses a team teaching approach, so he sees about 57 students every day in his assigned areas of social studies, science and writing. Through Zoom and, lately, Google Classroom, he is meeting with students in a variety of configurations from large groups to small one-one-one sessions.  

Like Hovis, Klein said there are faculty meetings, weekly planning activities and, as a member of the school’s steering committee, time to communicate with other teachers and help to implement school-wide initiatives. He has found that some students need more of the one-on-one contact; perhaps they are struggling at home or having difficulties with technology or the devices.  

“I check in to see how they are doing,” said Klein. “In many instances, the teacher becomes the counselor or psychologist. Our kids are facing the same challenges as adults but with the coping skills of 10-year-olds.” 

Klein tries to end each classroom interaction with some kind of celebration. Making faces. Striking funny poses. Taking off his hat so the students can see his hair under the hat. 

“I’m trying to be realistic in terms of expectations in this imperfect time,” said Klein. “I am trying to balance those expectations with some fun.” 

Steve Klein, a fourth-grade teacher at Bellefonte Elementary, would normally lead students in a special year-end activity cleaning up the memorial area outside the school building. Photo provided/Bellefonte Area School District

At the middle school and high school level, the challenges are not much different. Jeff Tranell, a sixth grade teacher at Park Forest Middle School in the State College Area School District also takes a connection approach.  As a math and science teacher, Tranell has approximately 70 unique students in his classes – unique meaning some students may be in both his science and math sections.  

“The novelty has worn off now,” said Tranell. “They were initially excited to see their friends.”  To address that, he starts each class with some games – either educational or community building – to re-engage his students.  

“We try to reinforce those kids who are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” he said. “We use positive emails to the students and the district is giving virtual ROAR tickets for student recognition.” 

In addition to the meetings, lesson planning, grading and interacting with his students in a new learning environment, Tranell and his wife, who also works for the SCASD, have three children of their own – below the age of 12.  

“Sometimes I am switching hats by the minute,” he said. “We all had meltdowns.” 

Tranell talked about time as a major difference in this new situation. “In person-to-person interaction in the classroom I can sometimes get a read on a student in seconds, how they are doing, if they understand. Everything in this environment becomes longer. How to word an email to a student. A 6-7 minute instruction video can take over an hour to plan and record and then wait for it to convert, hoping there are no blunders.”

Jeff Tranell, a sixth grade teacher at Park Forest Middle School, has been a teacher for 20 years and said the shift to virtual learning during the pandemic has emphasized “the most important thing about learning is the connections and the relationships.” Photo provided

Jennifer Reed teaches sports therapy and exercise science in SCASD’s Career and Technical Center which is embedded at the State College Area High School. She teaches four year-long courses and three semester courses as well as supervises teaching assistants through an elective course. In total, she sees 170 students over the course of the year with approximately 115 unique students.  

In addition to required ZOOM meetings for her students, there are office hours for each class. Both the middle schools and high school at SCASD set aside Wednesdays for planning, grading and collaboration days.  

“The rest of my time is planning, recording Zoom lectures, one-on-one times with students, contacting missing-in-action students and families, and working with counseling, administration and IT for whatever issues arise” said Reed.   

She has additional duties related to her role as National Technical Honor Society Advisor and has been working closely with a team of teachers making and distributing 3D-printed personal protective equipment (PPE) to area medical, dental and healthcare providers. She also serves on the State High scholarship review committee and has been scoring and reviewing scholarship applications and writing letters of recommendation for graduating seniors.  

“It's been far from quiet or boring,” said Reed. “The initial transition was 10-12 hours per day to pivot quickly and with quality content.”

Reed and Hovis are also parents, although their children are older. Hovis has four; one is a junior in high school and the other three are in college. Reed has two college students as well. All are now remote learning from their homes. For Reed and Hovis, in addition to their teaching duties, they are also helping to manage the Internet activities at home and occasionally, helping to proofread or “peer review” a college paper.

The collective experience and dedication of the teachers I talked to was inspiring, as was their insight into how this remote learning has impacted students in ways that people outside of education may not understand.  Distractions in the online classroom that wouldn’t be there in the school building – siblings, dogs, a delivery driver, etc. Middle schoolers for whom seeing themselves on screen can be uncomfortable or embarrassing. Students sharing that they don’t learn as well through online learning. Others who just don’t like technology. Varying levels of parent involvement and support – sometimes because both parents are working either at home or still going to a workplace. How easy it is for students to fall behind.

“It’s misguided to think that education is just about facts,” said Klein. “The benefits that students get from what we call the specials – art, music and physical education – are a big part of learning”  

Tranell agreed. “It’s been really tough for the students in the performing arts who have had the loss of their performances or of participating in their ensembles,” he said.

All of the teachers I talked to raved about the support they are receiving from their school districts.  “Our students are still being fed,” said Tranell. “They have access to technology and support services. Our guidance counselors and school psychologists are all still working to meet the needs of our students and families.” 

“Nobody has to do this alone at SCASD,” said Hovis. “I am a mover — sitting has always been my enemy, so sitting at a computer is torture. Thankfully, our administration encourages us to step away and take a break! They realize that for many of us, sitting in front of a screen all day — something we rarely do when the kids are in the classroom — is impossible, and from the beginning acknowledged that we need to take care of ourselves too.”

“I would give Bellefonte Area School District a solid A,” said Klein. “The district has been very supportive of students, families and of teachers.” 

Across the board, the teachers mentioned missing the interpersonal interaction of the traditional classroom.  

“I was just in the classroom recently and we erased our huge ‘Seniors, Where Are You Going?’ white board and not all of them had a chance to add their name yet,” said Reed. “The 10th graders watch the seniors do this and they wait for their turn. It’s a big deal in our program to walk over and add your name, college, military or workforce destination, major and often collegiate sport! I miss celebrating them.”

“Not being with my kids and with my co-workers is absolutely the hardest,” said Hovis.   

“This is my 20th year teaching,” said Tranell. “This has shown me that the most important thing about learning is the connections and the relationships.”

“Every single student of mine that has attended Zoom office hours has told me they do not like learning this way and they miss the daily interactions that school brings,” said Reed. “I love to share information but trying to do health care courses online authentically is far from ideal. Health care is about human interaction and we sorely lacking that at the moment.”

Jennifer Reed, a teacher in State College Area's Career and Technical Center, said the senior board with post-high school destination is 'a big deal' for students and she misses having the celebration. Photo by Jennifer Reed

The challenge of the coronavirus shutdown has also offered these and other teachers some insight for the future.

 “I've always been a proponent of technology, “ said Hovis. “However, I'm going to use it differently in the future. I will use many of the resources from day one with my kids, so that we are all better prepared if we are in this situation again.”

“One of the celebrations is getting to see the amazing work of other teachers,” said Tranell. “It’s been neat to see other lessons that I wouldn’t get to experience.”

“This has taught me that there is no substitution for human contact in teaching,” said Klein. “While there is a place for online learning, this has reinforced for me the importance of the small and infinite number of interactions that we have in the classroom – the energy of the contact – that is what makes teaching.  Teaching is a profession of human contact.”

Last week was Teacher Appreciation week.  It is usually a week about flowers and special lunches, gift cards and thank you notes. This year, under these circumstances, it is about appreciating the goodness and hard work our teachers are bringing from their homes into our homes. Thank you to all of our  teachers.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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