Last spring teachers were forced to reach students online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and may not have anticipated the start of the 2020-21 school year would also begin in the world of virtual learning.
The Dysart Unified School District implemented an option for continued learning while kids were unable to attend school in-person. District officials have since announced the reopening of campuses Sept. 14.
For first year Marley Park Elementary School first-grade teacher Elaina Hays, this was the start of her first career, which was completely flipped upside down. In the spring, Ms. Hays was student-teaching at Marley Park, 15042 W. Sweetwater Ave., training on how to be a teacher in a classroom. But soon she was learning the art of teaching online.
She admits virtual learning has been a huge learning experience for her and of course presented some challenges. But the good is what she is taking away.
“I am so impressed with my little ones and how well they were able to adjust to the online way of teaching because I just wasn’t expecting first graders were going to be able to read and write online and actually a lot of my children have been very successful even though I feel we would have had more success in the classroom,” Ms. Hays said.
She said working with a first grade team that have all taught 15 or more years has been educational and with all of them in the same boat, she is not the only “new” teacher.
“We did not get into this profession to teach online,” Ms. Hays said.
Kids will be filing up the classroom soon and Ms. Hays is ready. She said college prepared her for online learning as she was exposed to more online tools and technology and was able to utilize those in the online classroom and help out the team with resources.
“Although it wasn’t the best scenario to be in we try to make the best of it and try to focus on our littles ones and what learning we could control and do our best to make sure they are not falling behind. And just trying to continue their learning,” she said.
The excitement of a first year teacher is still burning and having a classroom to call Ms. Hays and filling it with resources that best fit each individual in the class is exciting for the new teacher. She also said getting the chance to determine what works best for the students and deciding how to best teach that curriculum to the class is something she is looking forward to.
“I finally get to do that and it is even more special this year. I didn’t know I would have the opportunity to get back into a classroom and luckily I am able to,” she said.
Jennifer Maddox is also a first-grade teacher and calls Asante Preparatory Academy, 23251 N 166th Drive., home. Her journey began with seven years of teaching, before leaving for four years.
She has been back in the field for the past two years.
Typically, a summer for this first grade teacher would consist of signing up for professional development and training for the programs. Additionally, a great deal of research would be completed to get up to date on the best practices and making things for the classroom to create different ways to present content to students to remain engaged.
“All of the professional development I did over the summer was all online and it was a lot of webinars and I would Zoom with my team and a lot of those were to talk about ideas and things we could do,” Ms. Maddox said. “We had to change almost everything and learn new technology and try to get up to date on it so we could be using different things in our classrooms.”
The complexity of teaching a first grader to read all by virtual learning is immense.
Ms. Maddox said first grade is such an instrumental grade and the first grade team at her school brainstormed ideas on how to get books in to students hands. Without a student reading in front of you and tracking the letters and words, it can create a bit of a challenge, she said.
“I cant give immediate feedback to individual students and what they are trying to write down or I can’t see them pushing letter blocks together or moving the items I am giving instruction on. I can watch them and not everything can be seen in the screen for me to be able to see if they are on the right track or if we need to work through it again,” Ms. Hays said. “Home is not an ideal learning environment for some children. There are no letters on the board, number lines or a sight word walls for the students to use as a resource.”
The creativity shown by teachers is grand, but Ms. Maddox said teaching virtually forced teachers to think outside of the box and to look for other ideas depending on the resources students may have in the home environment.
Returning to the classroom brings fear and hope to Ms. Maddox. She described the need to build a community together inside the classroom and spending time talking and getting to know each other, but fears students will be thrilled to see each other and will get heartbroken when they can’t give a friend a hug or high-five.
“Social emotional development is a huge concern for me and kids need to be around children and other adults and they will have some fears from the things they are hearing at home and others that are not hearing those things and then bringing them together and not stepping on each other toes will be tricky,” she said.
Safety is always a priority for teachers but Ms. Maddox said this time it is at a much higher level and now the job is to protect them from something she is unable to see. Saying, “These are people’s babies and I need to protect them. That is a lot of kids to keep my eyes on at all times while teaching.”
Ms. Maddox said even with all the unknown things, procedures are in place and the job is to figure out how to still make it fun and exciting and a safe place students look forward to going everyday.
As a 20-year veteran teacher, Elizabeth Serafin is using all the tools acquired over time to navigate a new way of teaching first graders at Dysart Elementary School, 12950 W Varney Road in El Mirage. She admits some of her best teaching practices to engage kids includes buddy talks where everyone shares ideas, but on a computer, that takes a great deal of time.
“So my students have been sharing with stuffed animals. I can watch and see if their mouths are moving and get an idea of what they are seeing although it is hard to hear,” Ms. Serafin said. “The real challenge for me is having to think about it in a different way, but a lot of the strategies I have been taught through professional development I am still able to use get the kids to respond and talk the way that I want them to. It was exhausting at first and you have to use more brain power, but this is what I want for them and it is just the how are we going to get there, now.”
Getting back in the classroom will have some challenges and with management strategies already in place, Ms. Serafin said she will take time to reteach and figure out the new management in the classroom.
“So much to think about, like where are you sitting and how far away are you walking from each other in line and watching social distancing at recess, in the cafeteria and washing hands and desks every two hours,” she said. “Adding all the new procedures that are going to have to take place will be a transition and we are on a roll of learning and I don’t want to stop that momentum, but we have to learn how to be in a safe classroom now.”
Ms. Serafin said she is beyond thrilled to get back to the classroom to have little bodies at the desks once again and for them to learn as much as possible, saying she was meant to teach and wants to get back to teaching.
Editor's Note: Jennifer Jimenez can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @SCW_Independent.