By Ayeisha Colligan
The 2019-2020 school-year promised to be an optimistic and exciting year. It marked the beginning of my senior year, more time spent in classrooms, and overall more dedication to doing what I love: teaching. Of course I was excited to finally get out into the field and begin my observations, and try to absorb as much information as possible. Naturally, I had a multitude of questions for my mentor teacher, which he was more than willing to answer; the nature of them being relatively tedious, or related to the general workings of his classroom. How fitting is it that we have now entered a world in which there are no answers to questions I’d dismissed as being too basic, or common knowledge. Questions I thought I’d have more time to answer: “What kind of seating layout should we employ? When does the building open? How many students are in our classes?” Instead, I’m left wondering IF the building will open, how many students I can accommodate, and all whilst also adhering to social distancing guidelines.
I can’t help but make a comparison of my practicum hours logged in Fall 2019 to this up and coming semester. This time last year, I was gearing up to begin teaching; contemplating how high school students were going to perceive me, and how I would begin to start planning my classes. Now, each of those thoughts are running through my mind and more. Before, there was a safety blanket of knowledge and past experiences from multiple other teachers enveloping me like a cocoon. If I ran into an issue, or couldn’t answer a question, I could always get advice from a colleague who had been in a similar situation. Now I seem to be surrounded by an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and fear.
I’m beginning to see students and teachers alike finding new and innovative ways to make connections, and continue to maintain relationships with one another. Creating a relationship with students is still my number one priority to begin the 2020-2021 school year. In “normal” circumstances, this would not be a difficult task. Since there is only a four or five year age difference between the students and myself, I often find it easy to interact and relate to them. With the introduction of COVID-19, my ability to relate to the average “high school experience” has been eliminated. Instead, I find myself trying to find ways to compare my “lockdown experience” with that of my students, or the hobbies that they discovered while in quarantine.
From a student perspective, Spring Break and the weeks that followed was like living in a dream. Classes were shut down, and teachers began to scramble to revise their curricula to continue to meet the needs of students. As a college student with a full-time job, I’m no stranger to the occasional online course - their flexible schedule is unparalleled. For some of my own teachers, however, this was their first excursion into the online realm. I experienced a wide variety of successes - and failures - with a number of teachers attempting to maintain a regular class schedule online. Some tried to maintain regular class hours, and upload videos of their teaching while others opted for discussion boards. While I recognize that this rapid change was unexpected, there are several aspects of their teaching that I would hope to improve upon.
For one, many students (myself included) learn best in a face-to-face classroom - ESPECIALLY since two of my classes included English Grammar and Linguistics, and Literary Criticism and Theory. Choosing to continue the class through online discussion boards did not aid my learning - rather, this medium of teaching hindered it. Instead of embarking on thought-provoking and organic verbal discussions with my fellow classmates, we began to create forced, and alienated discussion posts. With no active guidance, each of us were left to post our feelings about a given text, but unable to ask specific questions arising from discussion. The same can be said for classes that include uploaded videos of teaching; a disassociation between student and teacher that greatly hinders student motivation and desire to learn. Like many other aspects of teaching, sometimes trial and error is the only way to fully understand which practices work, and eliminate those that are least effective. With the addition of Zoom in the classroom, I can at least hope for some face-to-face interactions with my students this semester. Since I have first-hand experience with the distance that online-only classes can create, I hope to try to find ways to maintain constant communication with my students, that limits their feelings of isolation, and brings some sense of normalcy back to the classroom. Since teaching is an effective master class in trial and error, there is plenty of room for me to explore my options. Inevitably, mistakes will be made. Perhaps while making these mistakes, my teaching style will emerge. I’ve found that students find a certain kind of comfort in knowing that their teacher is not perfect. In fact, I tend to relate more to those that show their mistakes, and model how to learn from them. Therefore, I intend to eliminate some of the alienation that can be felt whilst distance-learning by navigating the vast abyss that is online learning right alongside my students.
As this pandemic continues to wreak havoc on all aspects of everyday life, I’m left wondering how this will impact me, and my future as a student teacher. I’m worried about the connections that should be made between myself, other staff members, students, and their parents. Should my district choose to continue the school-year online, I will lose the hands-on experience that comes with being in the classroom. I fear that this will have a ripple effect on my disciplinary skills, along with the ability to be an effective leader in the classroom. Any experience that I would have gained during a “regular” semester will be erased. I’m enrolled in a Classroom Management class, yet I don’t know if I’ll have a classroom to manage. Though distance-learning will mean losing face-to-face contact with students, staff and parents, I hope to use this opportunity to find new ways to connect. At the very least, this pandemic will give me a chance to explore different kinds of communicative technology, and find ways to implement it into my teaching that I would not have had the chance to do otherwise. In addition to this (and perhaps more importantly), this will allow me to learn how to adapt to difficult circumstances. Since adaptation is an important part of effective teaching, learning how to adapt in an uncertain environment will allow me to succeed throughout my career.
Uncertainty and fears for this semester are not my only worries with the continuous spread of COVID-19. Not only do I have my student teaching semester to worry about, a large part of me wonders about my future - much like my students. I see a decline of high school graduates applying for colleges, and the ones that do are applying closer to home. It’s almost as if our horizons have been cut off at the knees. So what does this mean for me as a prospective teacher? Perhaps the biggest impact that COVID-19 has had concerns the futures of millions just like me. With the unemployment rate rising, and many businesses declaring bankruptcy, even my current situation as a part-time retail worker is in jeopardy. This has only been amplified due to my current graduation date this fall. Most schools do not hire midway through the school year, resting my future on an even more unstable precipice. I continue to worry if future employers will dismiss this semester as irrelevant, or commend me for continuing through the pandemic. Either way, I am woefully unprepared for the world of professional education.
While I will continue to carry a multitude of fears with me, I remain hopeful. Many of these fears are things that are completely out of my control, so instead of putting my energy toward these anxieties, I have to focus on the aspects that I can control. I have to remain a strong leader and a positive role model for myself and for all of my students: present and future. The future will always be an uncertain time, and when left to contemplate this upcoming semester, I can’t help but be reminded of this quote:
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” - Martin Luther King.
Thankfully, I can say with complete certainty that I’m excited (and more than a little scared) to begin taking this first step with my fellow Kansas educators, parents, and students. The road ahead may be difficult, but with time and effort, I will continue to provide opportunities for my students to learn, grow, and be happy. I intend to begin and end my student teaching semester with one worry (and one step) at a time. For each fear that I have, I think of what this fear must feel like to one of my students. They’ve been displaced from their schools, distanced from their friends and families, and deprived of some of the most impactful moments of their lives so far. They don’t need to be met on their first day back with fear and uncertainty. Instead they need a positive role model - one that I sincerely hope I can be.
About the Author
Ayeisha is a senior at Washburn University and will be completing her student teaching semester in Fall 2020. She is a relatively new member to KATE, but intends to continue to be an active member after graduation.
Facebook: Ayeisha Colligan
By Charlie Bartsch
I almost wasn’t a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade, but I had a cooperating teacher that told me every day that I would never become a teacher. She never explained why that was, but simply insisted on screaming at me and demoralizing me each time I entered her seventh-grade classroom in Lincoln, Nebraska. She went so far as to call me at my home to tell me to “get my act together”. I remember struggling to re-word my instructions so that the students could understand, but guidance from a mentor was needed, not ridicule. Little did she know that throughout my entire life I had been proving disbelievers wrong. I am driven to prove that I can indeed accomplish what others say is not attainable for me. My experience with a demoralizing and discouraging mentor has shaped how I teach and mentor. My educational and leadership philosophies are built upon empathy and asking questions because I never want to make anyone else feel the devastation of being told they could not achieve their dreams. Assisting others to work through their difficulties and weaknesses is so much more effective than making them feel terrible about their mistakes. This approach to mentorship is essential to working with other humans, both young and experienced.
Now, almost twenty years later, I have more than proven my dedication to my craft and to the people who depend on me. I moved to Kansas when my husband got a job with Koch Industries. It was during this transition that I learned what true compassion looks like through my colleagues and peer consultant.
My evolution began at Southeast High School where I learned that empathy and consistency are the tools to connect with the students. Through these connections, another teacher and I decided the freshmen needed some assistance in adjusting to high school. We created a freshmen advocacy program to 1) help new high schoolers gain the knowledge they needed to be successful in high school and 2) provide leadership opportunities to the upperclassmen who taught the underclassmen the lessons. Throughout the process of this project, my leadership skills were put to the test. We not only had to convince the building and district leadership that the program was worth pursuing, but also the staff that it wouldn’t be more work for them. We took on the duties of creating all the lessons, training the upperclassmen, and monitoring to make sure those students did a good job.
Developing this curriculum and developing the program really helped me to refine my language at each level of our system and emboldened me to stand up for what I knew to be good for our students. After five years in the classroom, I left Southeast because I was asked to apply for a Peer Consultant position. I spent five wonderful years mentoring first-year teachers and planning professional learning (PL). I know it sounds strange to say that I enjoy offering PL, but I have sat through enough irrelevant professional learning that being able to offer current and relevant learning for teachers is exciting and refreshing. Being a peer consultant is the position that taught me the most about how to best support teachers.
Learning to assess a situation and offer feedback without being too harsh or too soft was a tricky subject. Teachers have good and bad days and first-year teachers have more bad than good. When offering feedback they often get defensive, but that defensiveness can be fear, feelings of helplessness, and frustration. Listening becomes the best tool to get to the heart of what is really going on. Teachers need to be heard and most of the time that is enough. Many times, just by talking through a problem or frustration with someone else, the teacher is able to arrive at their own solution. This type of listening and leadership is true guidance - not offering advice, but leading others to their own conclusions.
I use all of these skills in my current position as department chair at Northwest High School. I guide my team of amazing teachers with empathy and perspective. All of the teachers in the department are capable, experienced, caring educators that will do what needs to be done for the good of the students. The only leadership needed is advocacy and positivity. Backing them up when a parent complains or fighting for a new course or program they want to offer helps to build a strong team that works together and supports one another. Collaboration and teamwork is essential in our profession because teaching cannot be done in isolation.
The staff at Northwest are not the only progressive and caring teachers in the field. I have found through conferences and connections with teacher friends in other states that Kansas educators as a whole are some of the most progressive and caring individuals in our country. This progressiveness needs to be reflected in how they are treated by their leaders. For instance, the secondary school system needs to get away from the seniority model for choosing course loads and positions held. These things should be based on skill and the department chair cannot put themselves first in line. First, ask each teacher what they would like to teach the following year. Then, take into account each teacher’s special skills and where those would best be utilized. Build the department chair’s schedule last. That’s right. Take what is left after the teachers have been served. Whatever is needed. This ensures that the teachers are supported by showing them that their leader is willing to take a turn at the difficult classes so that they can have a lighter load. Chairs also tend to have lots of teaching experience. This means they may have more skills to deal with a difficult set of students than a new teacher would. The trend that first-year teachers always get freshmen classes which consist of learners with special needs must change. Give the most inexperienced teachers classes that will serve their individual needs. For instance, if they have great content knowledge but need help with management, give them older students that will go along with them when they try out new management strategies. Seniority cannot be the sole determiner. This is only one example of how to support fellow teachers.
Another way for leaders to support teachers is to disseminate information from the other layers of our system efficiently and effectively. The attitude of a leader directly affects those in his/her sphere of influence. The leader does not need to just buy-in and be disingenuous, but they must listen to concerns and work with the team on finding workable additions to take the initiative or behavior work for their students and staff. The teachers look to their leader for guidance on how to react. They need to know they will be supported regardless of how they feel about the task at hand. I want my colleagues, student interns, parents, and building leadership to understand that I will always advocate for my department’s best interest. In turn, the teachers feel empowered to make the professional decisions they need to make every day. Titles are not necessary in order to be a leader in the teaching profession. Each teacher should be encouraged to take on leadership roles within the system: classroom, building, district, state. This allows teachers to advocate for their students’ needs to a larger forum. Teachers have a voice and should use it to benefit the children sitting in front of them each day. This then starts a chain reaction where students also get the opportunity to see what true leadership is and how they too can be leaders.
In conclusion, what I am saying is that teaching is leadership. And in order to be a teacher leader you need to take calculated risks, pay close attention to your own behavior, and always keep others in mind. I have high expectations for those that I work with and they rise to those expectations because they know I will support them when they need it. Leading with empathy and open ears has continued to serve me well. My student teaching experience has shaped how I treat others and encouraged me to take on leadership roles to help support teachers who need it. All teachers are leaders. All leaders make an impact. Make sure that impact is a positive one.
About the Author
Charlie Bartsch teaches sophomore and senior English and AVID at Northwest High School in Wichita, KS. She has taught in the district for 18 years. She loves helping students and other teachers continue their learning.
Facebook: Charlotte Bartsch
By Heather Hawkins
Possibly the most powerful school experience my students have had while in Andover, KS, has been making connections with authors, scientists, National Parks, historians, students from other countries, and holocaust survivors using Skype. Why do I believe this? A conversation with one former student comes to mind. This student came to visit me when he was in high school, and I asked him to share the one thing he remembered most about middle school. He mentioned the day during his 6th grade year when we had a Skype call with students from India. That one 30-minute Skype call with Indian students, is what he remembered the most.
This has stuck with me and made it clear that the work I put forth to bring such connections to students is memorable. Creating these memorable experiences for all students while I have an opportunity to educate them is my mission.
So why did that student remember the day we Skyped with India? Because my students were able to connect with students half-way across the globe and learn about another culture. Because the Indian students showed us their ceremonial dress, dances, and musical instruments with pride. The students from India were excited to meet us, and our students were mesmerized. They were able to see with their own eyes that the other side of the world has students that are going to school just like us, and yes, they learn to speak English too. My students were able to share about their culture as well, as the students in India wanted to know more about America and Kansas. This global encounter is just one example of the many wonderful connections that students have made through Skype.
Yet another powerful connection happens during students’ 8th grade year. In their ELA class, students read Night by Wiesel and study the Holocaust. I reached out to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center to connect my students with a Holocaust survivor. Little did I know how much this connection could affect my students. We were able to Skype with Mr. Tuck who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He told us his excruciating story of survival, showed us the tattoo on his arm, and let us know that possibly the most important part of living is to get an education, something he was deprived of being in a concentration camp most of his teenage years. Mr. Tuck also told us that the reason he shares his story is so that people will understand that the Holocaust actually happened, and that if he could survive something so terrible, the students could survive putting up with a bully or having to complete hard work. We have since connected with Mr. Tuck for 4 years in a row, and I still get chills listening to his story.
Another fun and exciting Skype experience that I have put together is the Skype an Author Day. I find a different author to Skype with for every hour of the school day and students get to ask them questions about writing during their ELA classes. Finding authors that are popular is very hard to do, so I usually find authors that may only have a few books published, are affiliated with Scholastic, or their book is on the William Allen White 6th-8th grade list. The Skype an Author Day is usually filled with laughter, but also some nervousness. Students do have a little stage fright before talking to someone that they do not know. So, we practice. We practice Skyping with a teacher that has plan time in order to ask them a few questions, practice our manners, and get comfortable looking into a webcam. Providing my students this opportunity to practice communicating via Skype will go onto help my students in the future. What if they get their first job by way of virtual interview? At least I can say I had a hand in their communication skills in some small way.
But why is Skyping with an author so important? In addition to providing students with an opportunity to practice formally communicating via an on-line platform, when students get the chance to speak with authors, they realize that authors are people, too. Authors have a personality and story behind why they write the books they write. They give students suggestions about improving their reading and writing skills. Authors also give tips on how to overcome writer’s block, and they share that editing is what takes the longest. These connections also reiterate to students what their teachers tell them every day - to read, read, read. When this type of comment comes from an author or expert, students seem to accept the truth a little better. When someone else besides a teacher helps students realize that the information they are learning in reading, writing, history, science, etc. is important, then that information becomes memorable. Connecting with others via Skype proves that learning and receiving an education is the single most important job for any student to complete.
The last example of a memorable, virtual experience I give students is through mystery Skype. During a mystery Skype call, students are given the task of figuring out where in the world the classroom of students live by asking yes or no questions. Students have Google maps on their Chromebooks and must think about geographical questions to ask like, “Is your country in the southern hemisphere?” Each class connected on the Skype call takes turns asking questions until the country or state is revealed. Then the magic takes place. Students ask each other what their weather is like, what sports are played, how many students are in the class, what is the native language. The classes explain their state or country’s flag, their cultures, and even politics. These discussions make my heart smile, because I know that my students are learning about other places in the world besides our small town of Andover. They get to experience a small glimpse of what school is like in another country or state, and that even though the class of students may be far away, they are not so different.
So, how can more educators create these same virtual opportunities for their students?
There are so many ways to find experts and authors. Author Kate Messner has a website that lists the authors that are willing to connect. Skype in the classroom of course has many opportunities such as mystery Skype, virtual field trips, and guest speakers, including authors. CILC.org also has many connections available, but most charge a fee. However, just going to an author’s website, business/museum website, or National Park Service website and emailing the “Contact Us” email can be helpful. What do you have to lose? The worst thing that can happen is that someone might say no. However, this rarely happens if your email mentions students, education, and how connecting with them can bring a wonderful experience to the classroom or library. From one educator to another, this type of virtual opportunity is worth all the time and effort you give.
About the Author
Heather Hawkins is currently serving as a school media specialist library teacher at Andover Central High School in Andover, KS. Previously, Hawkins taught for 11 years as a middle school language arts teacher and 13 years as a middle school media specialist. Serving as a building technology leader and district professional learning team leader for several years, Heather is passionate about teacher collaboration and yearns to enlighten students through collaboration, innovation, and creativity. She is purposeful in giving her students memorable learning activities especially through Skype connections with experts, which build communication skills and cultural awareness.
Twitter handle: @hawkinsh23 and @achs_library
by John Ritchie
I started the 2019-2020 school year--my 20th year in the classroom--with more optimism and excitement than usual. I loved both of my PLCs. The junior PLC was hoping to breathe new life into Miller’s Death of a Salesman by pairing it with Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Second semester, we were ready to roll out (and defend if necessary) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These literature units would alternate with our renewed pumped up approach to digital literacy and research writing. My senior composition PLC was likewise pushing new citation styles and trying to help students see how and why the different citation styles were applied. Amidst all of this, a friend from Washburn University asked if I would sponsor a future teacher’s observation hours. If all went well, I would mentor ST the following fall during her student teaching semester. I would be open to all of her questions through fall, winter, and spring as we then geared up to an experience none of us could anticipate.
ST’s 2019 fall semester experience went very well. Initially, I would preview the lesson plans for her and then have her come up with questions about anything she observed during her two-hour stay. . Most of the questions were about the classroom layout, why I addressed some behaviors but ignored others, and how the transactions of the day would affect what I did tomorrow. When we got to our junior plays, she knew the classes she was observing well enough to predict that they would hate Biff and Happy (bunch of losers) but love Walter and Beneatha’s spirit. By the end of the semester, she was practicing electronic feedback on essays and creating seating charts based on what she knew about the students. I was pleased with her progress, so I was happy to put in the paperwork to be her mentor for Fall 2020.
I kept in touch with ST throughout the beginning of this past spring semester.. I shared our materials as we put together a tougher research unit than we’d ever done with our juniors. She previewed materials and began to see the delicate balance of creating clear objectives in student-friendly language. When our PLC spent three days wordsmithing a heads up for parents about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, she and I talked through the professional changes the team had made from the first to the final draft. With Part I of Perks completed without controversy just before spring break, I said things would be boring enough that she should focus on her final university classes and check back with me in May.
We all know how quickly things changed during spring break. ST contacted me to ask what we were doing. All I could say was “we’re adapting.” It was tough to keep her informed when my own information seemed to change by the minute. Then came the press conference. All of us in education had an inkling of what would happen, but I doubt any of us believed it. When the words were said, I couldn’t accept it. I jumped as my breaking news alert confirmed it. Dazed, I captured the screenshot for posterity:
Another alert--a text from ST: “Are you watching? What do you think?”
I felt an obligation to be the mentor. A temptation to sit above it all and try to remain objective. But I found I didn’t have the energy or desire. It didn’t feel right. I was watching the press conference blinking back tears because one of the best parts of my life had been taken away for at least the next six months.
“Devastated,” I replied.
As ST continued to check in periodically with me, I wondered how I could continue to offer myself as a mentor to her. I was dealing with Google Meetings that were attended by less than 10% of my classes. Incidents of plagiarism began to spike. It became a vicious cycle of my kids’ motivation dying, which hurt mine, which no doubt hurt my kids, and downward we went. I felt like nothing I did mattered. The assignments and the grading became busy work. What could she learn from someone who no longer felt effective?
I will never be more thankful for my PLC colleagues than I was from March - May 2020. It was easily one of the lowest points of my teaching career, but they helped me survive it. Our weekly meetings were the only confirmation I had that I was not alone, that I was not failing as a professional, and that we were all clawing toward a finish line hoping to have something to be proud of at the end.
As the school year wrapped up, my PLCs made a Google Form reflection for our students that we counted as the last assignment of the semester. We asked students to be honest about what worked for them and, in a worst case scenario, what should change if we had to go through this again next fall. Some of my worst fears were confirmed--the students saw some of what we did as boring busy work--but we also received encouragement saying they thought we did the best we could under the circumstances. One thing I noticed was how many students said they appreciated the ongoing contacts, even if the students did not engage us in return. There were also many genuine messages about how much they enjoyed and missed our class. That helped me realize that any successes we had in the fourth quarter were from the relationships we had built the previous seven months. It also helped me realize that I could continue as a mentor for ST by building off the relationship we had created last year, and by welcoming her as a colleague into our PLC.
It’s now late June. ST has finished her PLT and is beginning to ask questions about the fall. During any other year, we would approach it the same way I usually approach the fall and reflect upon on the previou year: identify what worked and what we can do to improve upon it; identify what bombed and evaluate if it is worth salvaging it,;and identify what new learning has excited me in the past year and where I can implement it. Of course we can still go through this process and build on the foundation created from last year, but the pandemic remains the inescapable elephant in the room. We cannot plan for it. Instead of giving in to the despair I felt earlier, I tell her it is an opportunity to dive deeper into what teachers and students in our district, and across the state, are already using. As we are a Google school, one priority is making sure she is proficient with Google Classroom and Forms. We look at screencast software and search teacher sites for the most user-friendly resources. I give her National Writing Project books and links to sites like KATE and NCTE’s ALAN site. The exchange flows both ways. As someone who is only five or six years older than our students, she is more likely to know what technology will be most engaging to them without seeming forced or, dare I say it, cringe. Part of her job is to suggest whatever she thinks might help us engage our students. She floats the idea of a Tik-Tok for our classes. I am not yet convinced, but I am listening.
Now we get together at least once a week to walk a public trail and talk about the fall. We get past our anxieties by discussing education developments. We joke that our walks in the summer humidity will give us the endurance to teach eight hours while wearing a mask. Many Board of Regents schools have announced that on-campus classes will end with Thanksgiving break. Will that happen to us? We know it’s possible. Based on the 4th quarter, we decided to suggest to the PLC that we put the major work in the 1st quarter. It may be an illusion of control, but the discussions help us acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead. Relationship-building is our top priority. Our first assignment together is to come up with a plan to build connections with students as soon as we are able to contact them, regardless of what that contact might look like.
I still worry whether I’ll be an effective mentor for ST. Even under ideal conditions, student teaching is an unpaid internship with all of the stress of teaching without many of the benefits. She is entering a situation that turned us all into first-year teachers again. This year her questions will often be the questions I’m trying to answer, too. The best that I can do is to acknowledge my own doubts, but show how we push past them through continuous learning and flexibility. I will show her how to enter a career that often thrives on adapting to crises whether it is school violence, sudden changes in curriculum, or even a pandemic.
About the Author
About the author: John Ritchie lives in Topeka where he teaches English 11 and Composition at Washburn Rural High School, and Composition as an adjunct professor at Washburn University. He has been an active member of KATE for 15 years.
Facebook: John Ritchie
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