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Teaching in the Time of COVID by Matt Spence

School's been back in session for five weeks now, and with each passing day, the people on the campus of Providence Day seem a bit more comfortable with the policies and procedures that have been put in place to keep everyone safe from the novel coronavirus. Masks can be uncomfortable and sweaty, but they're not all that bad. Remembering which doors are exit-only and which staircases are up-only (despite the vivid signs) took some time, but it's mostly instinct now. For many, not talking during a meal has been decidedly challenging, but most people are adjusting.

It's different, and we all yearn to return to regular school, but it's okay, and the new systems seem to be working.

Outside of school, my family and friends constantly ask me what it's like to teach these days. What's it like to be around the kids? Are you worried that you might contract the virus? Are the students resisting the new rules? I tell them although that it's definitely different, things are going surprisingly well. I've been teaching English at PD for twenty-four years, and this is obviously the most unusual start to the year that I've ever experienced. My students sit in carefully-spaced rows, which is new for me because I prefer discussion circles or squares. Also, on any given day half of my class is composed of student faces on a SmartBoard screen, and although all of them are more reserved than usual, everyone is making the best of things. And, I haven't worried about catching the virus since the first day.

However, I can only speak for myself, so I reached out to some colleagues to see what their thoughts were.

Josh Springer teaches Middle School PE, Upper School Health, and coaches the Varsity Girls Basketball Team

JOSH SPRINGER

Josh Springer is entering his fourteenth year at Providence Day, and for him, PD is an all-family affair: his wife teaches in the Lower School here, and his two sons are in first and sixth grade. For all of them, the prospect of returning to campus this fall was a welcome one, especially for his boys. Springer said that they both missed the structure of school and the time they spent with their friends, and he added that he knew that things were tough for them when they could "tell you the exact date they saw so-and-so friend, and how many weeks it's been or how many months." So for his family, they were looking forward to returning, and Springer says he's genuinely excited to be back.

During the months of remote learning last spring, Springer said that he missed making connections with his students on a daily basis, and said that while the current hybrid schedule of the Middle and Upper Schools isn't ideal, it's working. When I asked him if he had any worries about being back on campus with students, he said he didn’t. His concern was for the kids in his classes:

As a teacher, there's some nerves about how do we do it all? And, how do we do it all to the best of our ability, and how do I make sure Matt has the best experience in front of me in class, and how do I make sure Kevin has the best experience at home, who's alternating, and how do I make sure that Randy has the best experience who's 100 percent remote?

Teaching sixth grade PE classes has been particularly challenging, and it has required Springer and his department colleagues to be even clearer in their objectives for each unit. And, he admits, "We all recognize that there's things we can't do." For example, there can't be any team play because of the need to maintain distance between students. However, Springer considers himself a "glass half-full guy," so he focuses on what he can do: if the students who are on campus with him can't play a game, they can practice the skills needed for it. If students are at home, he can assign videos for them to watch so they can learn the rules of the game and see how it's played before completing a workout to stretch and strengthen targeted muscle groups.

Although having large PE classes is usually ideal, Springer says there is one clear benefit to the reduced number of students he has in the hybrid model: the increased opportunity "to develop even better relationships with each kid," and this is what teaching and coaching is all about.

Emily Young teaches World History and AP World History in the Upper School.

EMILY YOUNG

Although Emily Young has been at Providence Day for six years, she's worn a lot of hats: she has taught many of the History Department's elective courses as well as World History and AP World History, coordinated the prom and after-prom party, and she has advised clubs like Model UN and Mock Trial. She has also coached varsity and Middle School cheerleading, dance, and girls lacrosse, and she has just taken on a new role as the Assistant Upper School Learning Specialist.

Her new role as a Learning Specialist required Young to be on campus for a large portion of the summer, so she was already accustomed to constantly wearing a mask, making sure she maintained at least six feet between herself and other people, and repeatedly washing and sanitizing her hands. So, she didn't have the same learning curve as other faculty did when school started up again. However, Young says there were still a lot of unknown factors that concerned her such as not knowing where the students would sit in her classroom, how to help them with the rotating hybrid schedule, and how to plan lessons for a semester in which nothing was certain. Still, she was eager to start working with students in person again:

This is my job, and this is what I love to do, so for me, [returning to campus] was kind of a no-brainer.

Although Young isn't especially afraid of catching the virus herself, she does worry about the risk of accidentally exposing her family to it: "It is stressful not being able to see my parents or grandparents due to the constant risk [of] exposure on campus." She adds that since the students and faculty have been back on campus for several weeks, she feels much more comfortable and less anxious. However, she says that "[T]rying to remember all of the new policies while trying to do the best for the students is challenging. So for me, it's more about mental health than physical health." Young also says that she is concerned about all of the PD faculty and staff: "Our focus has to be on the kids, and it is, but sometimes we forget about ourselves."

Like Springer, Emily Young says that teaching in the new hybrid model presents challenges that have required her to deeply consider what is most important for the students to learn and to find new ways to teach them. With all students being remote learners at least part of the week, Young has worked hard to create lessons that give them more ownership of their learning. This has required her to alter her teaching style significantly. However, she has been invigorated by the challenge of reconsidering what she teaches and why she teaches it. And, although this is difficult at times, she feels that it will make her an even better teacher for her students in the long run.

Leigh Cook teaches fourth grade in the Lower School.

Leigh Cook

Leigh Cook is in her twenty-second year at PD, and she is currently teaching fourth grade. Her two daughters, Mauren and Mazie, are in the ninth and fifth grades, respectively. Although they had enjoyed the ample amount of time they had to spend together as family over the summer, Cook and her girls were eager to return. "As cliché as it sounds, Providence Day has been home to us for the past eleven years, and we wanted to be back."

While Cook and her family were not worried about coming back to school during the pandemic, she knows firsthand that the risk of contracting the virus is real – both of her parents caught COVID-19. Both are recovering, but her father is in a facility so he can regain his strength. Despite this experience, Cook says that she had no reservation about being back on campus: "I knew we were going to wear masks, and I knew about everything the school had put in place, so I felt really confident."

Of course, she has had to make significant changes to how she approaches her job and her students. "I'm a really affectionate teacher, and [I realized] 'Oh my gosh, I can't hug my kids!'" In addition to maintaining distance between herself and her students, she has also had to make changes to her classroom layout and the way her students work in groups. All around her room, there are pieces of tape on the floor that are at least six feet from one another, and whenever her students work in pairs or groups, she tells each to choose a specific piece and reminds them that they need to stay on that spot to keep each other safe.

Cook has also taken the opportunity to bring her class outside as often possible. Each student brings a beach towel to school every day to spread on the grass outside; that way Cook and her class can spread out and enjoy the fresh air while she teaches them reading and math. "I've had to make changes, but not huge changes." Although the first weeks were a bit confusing, Cook says that "the kids are now in a nice rhythm," and "have handled it all really well, and we're all just glad to be back in school."

Cook says that the relatively smooth return to teaching and learning in person is due in large part to the way people are working together to make the best of things. She has especially high praise for the teacher assistants who have "really stepped up" by taking on more responsibilities such as leading classes and teaching social studies. It is this collective effort that is making it all work.

I think if we all come together, we can do it – we can make this work. Is it a challenge? Yes. Is it the best scenario? No. But we can do it together.
Roy Garrison teaches World History and AP European History in the Upper School.

Roy Garrison

Now in his thirty-eighth year at Providence Day, Roy Garrison has done and seen a lot in his career. He has taught many of the courses offered by the Upper School History Department and currently teaches World History and AP European History. He coached soccer (both boys and girls)and track and field, and he has advised many clubs, including the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, World Quest, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Despite the inherent health risks of teaching in the time of COVID, Garrison can't imagine doing anything else. He says that when August rolls around and the start of the school year gets nearer, he instinctively starts to look forward to it: "I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy getting to know new kids. I enjoy trying to find new ways to talk about what I teach." However, learning to teach in the new hybrid model and mastering technological tools were, and continue to be, daunting.

When asked about how things are going in the fifth week of school, Garrison says that he still feels overwhelmed. "Usually by this time of the year, I've learned the names of my students, and we're all in a rhythm, but I don't feel like that this time around." He also says that he feels socially isolated this year because the times when he typically meets with colleagues, such as break, lunch, and after school, are dramatically different now. Garrison says that one thing that makes collaboration and general conversations difficult is that he has to take extra precautions to safeguard his health. He teaches in the same room and then eats his lunch, grades student work, and plans his lessons in an adjoining conference room. Doing so lessens the chance of exposure to the virus, but it also means that he sees fewer colleagues.

Technology is also an occasional frustration for him. Garrison is quick to say that the problem is with him because he is not a digital native. However, he does feel like he's improving: "I am more tech savvy – although I'm in that dangerous place where I know just enough to get it wrong." Garrison chuckles at himself, and a wry grin crosses his face before he adds, "Not every time, of course. I get it sort of right most of the time!" He wishes he could do more with technology because he worries about not being able to connect with each one of his students, especially those who are fully remote: "I'm trying to make sure I talk to as many of them as possible. I'm trying to [prioritize my attention to those students] because the kids who are in school, they have each other to connect with."

Garrison says that he misses the informal moments that are an essential part of school – talking to students in the hall, asking them how their day is going, or doing some "informal coaching" with a student or two before class starts. He is as devoted to his students as he has ever been, but he summarizes his experience so far this year like this:

I feel a little bit like I'm in a foreign land, and fortunately, I speak some of the language. But, there are lots more barriers in the way of me connecting [with students] than there were before, and trying to overcome those is a challenge.

The perspectives of four teachers out of the 207 employed by Providence Day is hardly enough to provide a comprehensive impression of how the majority feels about working during a pandemic. The teachers at Providence Day have varying degrees of concern in regard to contracting the virus that has affected the lives of so many people here and around the world. However, these four who agreed to be interviewed echo the sentiments of many others I've spoken with informally around our campus: they are committed professionals devoted to the success and well-being of their students both in and out of the classroom. The best way to accomplish this for the majority of PD teachers and students is to be in the classroom together, and that's why we're glad to be back.