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Educators tackle teaching in a COVID world

St. Agnes teacher looks for ways to reimagine school, while making sure safety comes first

By Pam Heiman
Third-grade teacher at St. Agnes School, Roeland Park

ROELAND PARK  — “Let’s keep our hands to ourselves.” “Give your friend some space.” “Is that a safe choice?”

Some phrases at school haven’t changed.

But “Cover your nose,” “Masks aren’t for chewing,” “Hand sanitize and line up for recess,” “You’re going to have to speak up, I can’t hear you,” and “You really shouldn’t drink your water through your mask” are definitely phrases I didn’t think I would ever say as a teacher.

Our daily reminders to our pupils aren’t the only thing that’s changed. One of the hardest parts about going back to school in August were the unknowns.

I was meant to be a teacher, but how do I keep all my kids safe in my classroom? Will they feel safe? How will this subject work? How will we transition? Can I keep student jobs? Are they able to still have a conversation with a partner?

How will lunch work? Are bathroom breaks in the hallway allowed? What about recess? What about reading groups? Is there enough space in their desks for the supplies they can no longer share?

Then, when school started, there was a whole new list of questions I asked myself.

Was that safe? Do I need to stop kids from playing tag at recess? Can they touch the slide that their friend also touched? Did I say the right things about staying safe in our masks? Was it OK that my students stood in a line and they weren’t six feet apart down the hallway?

Are they washing their hands the right way? Are they even washing their hands often enough? Did I forget to wipe down the door handle? Can I still do this lesson? Do they know that I care and am happy to see them, even though they can’t see the smile on my face?

As a teacher, I think it’s easy to look at our day and see many things we aren’t used to seeing in our normal day-to-day as teachers. Recreating so many of our lessons and ways we interact with students in small groups, activities and group work has had to look completely different.

The true need for flexibility has been apparent. Being flexible and prepared for changes isn’t easy, but having a great support system in my life has really made a difference.

If I’m going to sum up teaching for me in 2020 so far, it has been full of learning and relearning.  In my limited years of teaching where I have established my own routines and learned the best way to teach a skill for kids to understand, there hasn’t been a year that I’ve gone home more exhausted. The recreating/reinventing how to navigate this year safely has had me thinking that sometimes an 8 p.m. bedtime is not early enough!

Surprising to me, my students are so much more flexible and go-with-the-flow than I originally thought. I’ve never had to debate with my students why we’re wearing a mask. The pure compassion of knowing it’s helping everyone, including themselves, stay safe. . . . How did I get this lucky to have such great kids?

It has truly been a blessing to be [teaching] in person. I have missed being around my students in person and I’m so thankful St. Agnes has been able to be in person safely. The teachers and administration have been working so hard to keep our students safe and give everyone the support they need.

Early in the year, wrapping our heads around the changes, making sure everyone was being safe, was exhausting. I hate to brag, but I have the best principal and priest at St. Agnes. They recognized their staff’s need for a break and scheduled a day off for the next week. The pure relief on the faces around the room that day! It was exactly what we needed to get through the week.

Speaking from experience, having such a good support system has made this experience much more bearable.

Throughout all of this, some routines haven’t changed, and I am so thankful to have my faith.

I still get to pray with my students and attend livestream Mass every week with them. As far as phrases go, “Let go and let God” has been the go-to — because at this time in our lives, that’s what we need to remember.

I think it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, everyone — parents, caregivers, and teachers — are doing their best to keep kids happy and healthy.

Mater Dei teacher finds teaching remotely a challenge — but not without some upside

By Carolyn Kaberline
Eighth-grade teacher at Mater Dei School, Topeka

TOPEKA — First of all, let me say I never planned on being a teacher. Even though my grade school and high school teachers tried to steer me toward education, I knew that was not for me.

I planned on being a veterinarian — preferably for large animals and, in particular, horses — even though at the time I had never owned one or even been around them much.

But I was horse crazy.

I enrolled at K-State after graduating from Hayden High School in Topeka. At that time, there were few women veterinarians, so I chose a major in technical journalism — a backup plan since I love to write, although veterinary medicine was always my first choice.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to add English to the journalism and thought I could teach journalism for a few years to earn money for vet school as it was and is expensive. But I did not want to teach English — too many papers to grade.

Now — after teaching English and journalism to high school and middle school students for the past 51 years — I tell my students to never say never. God works in mysterious ways, and I have enjoyed teaching more than I ever thought possible.

Probably the only time I regret not becoming a veterinarian is when I get his bill in the mail for treating one of my horses.

So what is it like teaching in this year of COVID?

It is definitely challenging for any teacher, regardless of the number of years of experience he or she has. Currently, I am teaching eighth-graders at Mater Dei School in Topeka — remotely, due to some health problems. A few students are receiving instruction at home as well.

Trying to teach as though I were there in person can be a challenge, although I have some wonderful teachers helping me. Solving technical issues can be taxing, as can finding meaningful assignments that will allow the students to be prepared for high school, while enjoying their time in middle school. Social distancing, in particular, makes it difficult for them to participate in many activities, like reading to the kindergartners — a long-standing tradition for eighth-graders at Mater Dei.

Singing in music classes, too, is tough, as is having guest speakers come in — last year’s visit from Abraham Lincoln (or at least a reenactor) was a hit.  

And of course, students also miss some recess activities due to social distancing protocols. Everything must be planned thoroughly in advance, whether I am there in person or not.

Where I might have, in the past, taken the class outside to play hopscotch or some other game mentioned in a short story we were reading and with which they were unfamiliar, I have to make sure there is enough space available so they are not too close to each other.

But there are some upsides. Even though COVID has added problems for teachers, it has also encouraged students to be more independent thinkers and to exercise more self-discipline.

 Some things never change: The material still has to be covered and Mater Dei sets high goals for each of its students, then does its best to help the students attain them.

But at least at the moment, it seems like almost everything else has changed for the foreseeable future.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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