OC teachers reflect on what the past year has been like and what they expect from this new school year.
Virtual instruction became the name of the game for teachers last year.
When schools closed during the height of the pandemic, education took a harsh blow due to its in-person nature and with it, teachers had to make a transition to an unconventional method of schooling.
This year, children and staff are making their way back to the classroom. Considering what has transpired in the past year-and-a-half, teachers are likely returning with a new perspective.
Though the abrupt shift from a school classroom to a virtual, home setting prompted much confusion, it also gave way to the possibility of new approaches on what education means for instructors.
Education Through a New Lens
Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim math teacher Stephen Whitlock said that the past year has been a time to try new things. He said it was challenging to teach students both remotely and in-person but he was lucky to have supportive administrators and staff to assist with any adjustments.
“I have learned that while it is important to stick to a structure that works for you as a teacher, and to hold onto the procedures, lessons and assessments that work well, it is just as important to be open to change,” Whitlock said. “The willingness to adjust and figure out new ways to do things helped make last year successful for me and my students.”
Amid the difficulties that he experienced in the past year it offered an affirmation on how important connection was between students and their teachers, as well as among each other, he said.
“Despite all of these challenges, and because of that support, I believe I was successful and was able to make a difference for my students,” Whitlock said.
He emphasized how critical building relationships and fostering communication was in a student’s learning process.
Kimberley Gullo, a seventh-grade teacher at Tustin Connect Middle School in Tustin, said that despite the sudden disruption of last year, her students proved to be resilient and up for any challenge.
“No one anticipated this pandemic and the unorthodox learning situation it created, but teachers, students and families came together and made it work through positivity, effort and growth mindset,” Gullo said. “I am more honored than ever to be a teacher and am excited about the innovation, perseverance and bravery coming from this generation of young people.”
Gullo’s students proved their innovation with the establishment of The Pandemic Times, a class-run website dedicated to documenting all aspects of the pandemic, including vaccine research, new technology and mask fashion.
The project provided a way for students to bond by creating a digital time capsule of this strange time in human history, Gullo said.
“This next year I’ll be applying as many creative tech solutions as I can to enhance instruction and communication — the pandemic taught us to continually integrate new tools rather than stick with what’s familiar and safe,” she said.
Sara Hosseni, a history teacher at Aliso Viejo Middle School in Aliso Viejo, echoed the sentiment of flexibility being the key to teaching. She said that she learned with things constantly changing, not always meeting pre-determined goals was OK.
Her words of wisdom — “just roll with it” — serves as a way for students to learn to adapt to different scenarios they may face, Hosseni explained.
“My biggest reminder to my kids was to relax, and stress over only things you can control. Everything else, you just do your best,” she said.
For Hosseni, the past year has been exhausting. Settling in was almost unattainable as matters changed rapidly. But it reminded her of the importance of continuing to rise above and triumph through each challenge, she said.
“We saw how hard COVID hit our students, so sometimes it was more important just to have my students show up, than finish work,” Hosseni said. “There was much more emphasis on mental health, and I think that is an amazing thing.”
Meeting Social, Emotional and Mental Needs
For some teachers, the mental health of their students had to be taken into account when producing lesson plans.
According to reports by Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 71 percent of parents noted that the pandemic had taken a toll on at least one of their children’s mental health.
“As teachers we tend to focus on the curriculum. However, with the school closures, many other areas became the focus. You could see the kids having a difficult time being away from their routine and away from other students,” said Amy Jahn, a special needs teacher at Sunset Lane Elementary School in Fullerton. “The needs of the parents were also an area of challenge because each family had their unique situation that I needed to consider when designing the online program.”
Jahn came to understand the weight mental health had on her students, and she faced a more specific set of challenges working with students with moderate to severe autism online.
She said that due to her students’ special needs and young ages, parents had to be there with them to guide the children and keep them focused on the task at hand. But some were unavailable to log on, resulting in a lack of attendance during school closures.
Jahn learned to adjust to the obstacles.
“I learned the importance of meeting the social and emotional needs of the students,” she said. “Since my students are mostly non-verbal, this means that I will need to connect with each family individually to make sure I am prepared for their child to be returning to the classroom setting. I want to make sure that each parent and student feels safe and supported as they return to Sunset Lane.”
Educators were not only learning about the significance of mental health for their students but also for themselves.
Moderate to severe anxiety among adults jumped to 37.3 percent from 2019’s reported 6.1 percent while depression hit an all-time high, reaching 30.2 percent, according to The Century Foundation. Many adults, including instructors, had to take a step back and find a better way to cope.
Katey Thompson, a third-grade teacher at San Joaquin Elementary School located in Laguna Hills, plays many roles in the community, including student council supervisor and committee chair for the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. She said that although she enjoys dedicating her free time to these activities, a healthy boundary needed to be established to avoid burning out.
“I realized that working 10 to 12 hours a day doesn’t make me a better teacher, it just makes me tired or not have time for things I truly want to do, so this year I’m focusing on a good work and life balance!” Thompson said. “I love my career so I want to make sure that I don’t overwhelm myself or burn out.”
Regardless of how stressful her year was due to the huge expectations placed on her to perform a seamless transition to virtual learning and back again, having fun remained a priority, Thompson added.
Socialization Is a Must
A student’s involvement in a social community is vital, said Mark Wakita, a science teacher at Red Hill Lutheran School in Tustin.
“This has been a generation-defining event, but with the appropriate support and encouragement, our students have demonstrated that they can rise to meet and overcome any obstacle,” Wakita said.
Social and emotional support that children receive make a difference between surviving and thriving, said Michelle Skidmore, a physical education teacher at Esencia K-8 School in Rancho Mission Viejo.
The challenges of the past year made Skidmore modify her views on education as she placed a greater emphasis on growth.
“Once the children came back to school in person, everything changed,” she said. “Students received extra help in tutorials and understood how much their teachers really cared. They drew chalk squares with motivational messages during Kindness Week to encourage one another, and most importantly, they were able to talk, laugh and be silly with all of their friends. Kids were able to be kids once more.”
Skidmore said she was thrilled to provide students with the tools to combat feelings of depression, anxiety and hopelessness through internal energy created by physical activity.
Nancy Chung, a fifth-grade teacher at Orchard Hills School in Tustin, also found herself focusing more on the well-being of her students.
Chung recalled an incident where the school had to be evacuated due to a wildfire and although instruction was canceled for the following day, her students never failed to let her know that she was missed.
“I was so touched by how much they love school, how much they appreciate our class family, and how much they love me as their teacher and ‘school mom,’” Chung said. “I am so proud of them for maintaining their academic diligence and accepting that mistakes are all part of the learning experience.”
She said that the pandemic made her reexamine previously used teaching practices, in which she reflected on the purpose of the assignments she was assigning to avoid giving students busy work.
The extra help technology offered also stuck with Chung. She plans to “keep a lot of the digital ways of doing things.”
A Newfound Place for Technology
The past year witnessed a momentous growth in the use of technology in schooling.
In a survey conducted during fall 2020 by the Christensen Institute, a non-profit research organization, teachers and administrators have used technology to further evolve their practices and have gained more modern skills they plan to use even after the pandemic ends.
Many, such as Rachel Simmonds, an English teacher at Heritage Oak Private Education in Yorba Linda, found new ways to engage with students through the use of technology. Although she had been teaching for more than 20 years, Simmonds faced new hurdles. Multi-tasking took on a new meaning for her.
“I loved when students logged into Zoom early or stayed late because they just wanted to have continued interaction with me,” Simmonds said. “Even though their world was upside down, I could be a continued support system for them.”
Similarly, Greg Young, a science teacher at San Clemente High School in San Clemente, gained a number of technology-based skills that he plans to utilize from this point forward. He said that his students gained the capability to communicate online and maneuvered the school’s management system, Canvas, to carry out the lesson plan.
“Teaching has always required adaptability and flexibility,” Young said. “This past year was certainly a challenge, but I have to say I was continually impressed with how the students, families and my colleagues rose to the occasion and were able to maintain great educational quality.”
For Schehera McKasson, a music teacher at Stratford School in Mission Viejo, her classroom will never look the same and that is something she expressed joy in. With an unchanged love for teaching, she said she is excited to blend the new with the old, demonstrating that resilience during difficult times can be inspirational.
“Change is so hard, but I hope we never lose the courage to look at what we do as educators in a new way … you never know what might happen!” McKasson said.
By Karina Gutierrez