US teachers try to ‘bring normalcy’ amid ‘very unique time in their little lives’

The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended every aspect of daily life, denying us the freedom to freely eat, shop, work, and learn. Teachers have always had to get creative in the classroom — keeping students engaged and meeting their social and emotional needs, while juggling the demands of standardized testing and district expectations.

Many of the 98,000 public schools across the U.S. first shut down their physical locations on March 16. Teachers, parents, and students in their formative years have been thrust into this new normal, as long distance learning became ubiquitous overnight. The entire ecosystem has had to lean heavily on parents and technology to survive. 

Ten states have mandated school closures for the remainder of the academic year, with California and Nebraska highly recommending doing so. Other states have been pushing out the timeline for re-opening periodically, but given the trajectory of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, it’s likely other states will suspend physical gatherings for the foreseeable future. 

‘This collective wisdom is needed now more than ever’

As teachers and parents grapple with this unprecedented reality, they have turned online for reinforcement. Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) is the country’s leading marketplace of resources like menus, lesson plans, and games, many of them free of charge. Eighty-five percent of U.S. teachers, or around six million users, are on the platform, according to TpT.

NEW ROCHELLE, – MARCH 18: Nola Eaton, 6, and her brother Cam, 9, take part in home schooling on March 18, 2020 in New Rochelle, New York. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A new TpT survey found 17.3% of educators reported feeling “not at all prepared” for distance learning. Fifty-five percent feel “slightly or somewhat prepared” and only 4% feel “extremely prepared.” The survey of 2,737 educators was conducted between March 27 and March 29. 

In response to teachers needing to be increasingly self-sufficient during this time, TpT is also offering its subscription service for schools affected by the coronavirus for free through the end of the school year. CEO Joe Holland said the company has onboarded tens of thousands of teachers on the platform over the last two weeks.

According to Holland, searches for “distance learning” resources, or materials that are best suited for remote learning, have risen by 1400% in the past two weeks. 

“All of [our] top five search terms from March 15-30 were related to distance or home learning — a first for TpT. We’re also seeing a sharp increase in purchases of digital resources that are created to be used by students on devices,” he said. 

Parents are also looking for teacher-created resources to help them at home; more than 27% of new registrations last week were parents, doubling the weekly average in February. The total number of parents finding resources on TpT has spiked by nearly 500% year-over-year.

“The demand is only increasing and suggests that we’ll be able to help over 100,000 teachers nationwide, which is really exciting…As teachers and parents are strapped for resources, we’re also seeing an exciting increase in downloads of free materials, which make up a sizable part of our marketplace. While [we have] always been a go-to place for teachers to share tips, guidance, and resources, this collective wisdom is needed now more than ever, and it’s an honor to help those who need it in such a challenging time,” he said.

Creativity out of chaos

In addition to resources like TpT, teachers are turning to education tech companies during this period of unexpected homeschooling. Sites like Learning A-Z, Book Creator, Epic!, and tools like Calendly, and Screencastify are offering free trials as teachers across the country figure out how to be hands-on from afar.

Christina DeCarbo-Wagers, a first grade teacher at Rittman Elementary School in northeast Ohio, already felt reasonably well-positioned to transition online. With over 64,000 followers on Instagram, she had already established creative, digital-first approaches to teaching. She meets with her entire classroom twice a week using the video-conferencing app Zoom (ZM).

“I’m also meeting one-on-one with my first graders for weekly guided reading instruction. We meet through Zoom and read just as we would in our classroom. During my first reading lesson, I got a little teary-eyed and emotional. It felt so good to hear them read a book to me again and hear their sweet voices as we talked about the story together,” she said.

“Once a week, I host a Pajama Party Bedtime Story Session at 7:30 p.m. for my first graders and their families. The kids log into our Zoom meeting in their PJs, with their favorite stuffed animals, and I read a couple of bedtime books to the kids. It is such a precious time and the students have loved forming these unique first grade memories together…For the short time that we are all together on our video meetings, we almost feel as though we are back in our classroom together, sitting on the rug and laughing about a book we just read. It has helped to bring a feeling of ‘normalcy’ to this very unique time in their little lives,” added DeCarbo-Wagers.

For older students, teachers have to implement slightly more structured schedules. Alexandra Alvarez, a fifth grade Spanish bilingual teacher at Robert Frost Elementary School in northeast Illinois, is available from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to guide her students through their self-created schedules. Currently, she’s paused teaching any new academic concepts outside of math.

Most of her students log on every day and do a solid two to three hours of work, which exceeds the Illinois State Board of Education’s recommendation of one to two hours of engaged schoolwork per day. Alvarez has also been experimenting with her students, having them record videos, create comic books, draw 3D models, type stories, and immerse themselves in visual field trips.

“I push out their assignments and activities every morning through Google Classroom. Every day they begin with a Google form for attendance and a feelings check. Then they have a ‘morning meeting’ where I post videos about mindfulness, gratitude, breathing, online safety, empathy, etc., all social emotional learning. They pick and choose from their options, lay out what their goals are that day and get to work,” she said.

“There has been this relief of pressure in regards to testing and getting to all our grade level standards. It’s interesting to see how focusing less on state mandated testing and ‘getting to everything’ leaves room for creativity both from teachers and students,” she added.

Franklin-Simpson Middle School in central Kentucky pushes students to maintain a sense of normalcy by engaging in their after-school activities as much as possible. 

“I believe that it is a perfect time to allow students to show their creativity within their learning. We have done the best we can to foster this with the assignments… Students have been encouraged to have club meetings, sports team meetings, and even virtual pep rallies,” said Derrick Perdue, the school’s curriculum, instruction, and assessment specialist.

Learning menus are a popular method that teachers are sharing with students and their parents, offering a diversity of choices. Here is an example of one teacher’s weekly ‘menu.’

The dramatic digital divide

There’s a key ingredient that students need to participate in these innovative methods of learning — the internet. But the lack of internet access for much of rural America forces some districts to switch to a rudimentary approach. 

“The pandemic is universally disruptive for students and families, yet we know that this crisis affects households in dramatically different ways depending on socioeconomic status, unemployment, homelessness, physical and mental health, grief, loss, and trauma. Some families, with fewer risk factors, may have the technology, connectivity, and parental support to pursue rigorous academic studies while at home. Some will struggle to support their students’ learning while working from home,” said Holland.

“Even across this digital divide, we’re seeing educators continue to work heroically to stay connected with students and parents,” he added.

Rod Worthington is the principal of Howard E. Thirkill Elementary School in Soda Springs, a rural town in southeast Idaho. His school is delivering learning packets by a “Drive-up-Drop-off” method to parents in their cars.

“In a rural school district, Teachers Pay Teachers has come to the rescue to help differentiate instruction at home for our students. It’s great because I feel we have a nation of teachers supporting our students and teachers with creative, organized and engaging lessons,” he said.

Franklin-Simpson Middle School in central Kentucky has implemented a similar model, with two ways parents can access the curriculum every day of the week: a paper and pencil packet available for pick up or an online option. 

“Teachers are encouraged to communicate with students face to face when possible through Google Meet or Zoom. Students who do not have access to these services are contacted via phone. Our district has also organized a wave parade where our teachers will go out and wave at students on the bus routes in their cars,” said Perdue.

For their part, Alvarez’s fifth graders in Illinois were already taking Google Chromebooks to and from school every day prior to the coronavirus outbreak. 

SILVER SPRING, MD – MARCH 26: Max Alarcon, 17, waits with his sisters Lisa Cardenas, 6, and Yulianna Cardenas, 12, to pick up Chromebooks during Montgomery County Public School’s distribution at Bel Pre Elementary School on Thursday, March 26, 2020 (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I am fortunate to be in a district that was already 1:1 with technology… There is a lot more dependency on parents or older siblings to help the young ones with remote learning, but some families are either under a lot of stress right now or still working,” she said. 

But even equipped with tech devices, several of her students are still finding it hard to get plugged in.

“We contact parents every day, I email the kids, send them fun links, but it has been difficult getting them online. Of course there are usually valid reasons. I have a student whose mom was finally able to get internet — Comcast was offering 2 months free — but she still has to go to work. So my student goes to his grandparents, but they don’t have internet. He does some of the work at night then when he’s back home. It’s a challenge wanting students to continue learning, to want to engage them and motivate them, but then also be sensitive and understanding of individual family situations,” she said.

Even for her young students, DeCarbo-Wagers emphasized how important it was to make sure she does a lot of the heavy lifting to lighten the load at home.

“We are still using a lot of the resources we always have, but adapting them by sharing our computer screens during our virtual meetings. It’s also important that the resources are easy to use for parents, with little to no prep, as this is already a stressful time for families.”

Teacher appreciation season

This pandemic has lifted many teachers, who are often overworked and underpaid, to hero status. As working parents have resorted to taking work calls in their cars and closets with spare spaces like home offices being used as makeshift classrooms, many are finally recognizing the hard work it takes to educate their children.

The famed TV producer Shonda Rhimes took to Twitter to express her appreciation for teachers, positing that they “deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”

Meanwhile, CNBC anchor and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin shared his desire to establish more structure in his son’s day, only to be met with a profound philosophical retort.

“For many students, the time in the classroom was one of the best ways to get access to technology, their peers and even an adult. Teachers are relied upon for not only academic achievement but emotional support and structure,” Alvarez said. 

Holland said many teachers find themselves in a similar situation, showing the breadth of stability and support students receive in the classroom.

“In terms of freedom, what’s really heartening is most teachers have told us they have permission from their districts to focus on the social and emotional well-being of their students — rather than just the academic results,” Holland said. “They’re being encouraged to check in, see how their students are feeling, and to move through their lessons in ways that they think will be best.”

For principal Worthington, parents has appreciated that he will them where their resources are. 

“We have received many ‘thanks’ from parents who have other older children using computer devices to do their home-bound work online, and our elementary students are working on learning packets and suggested optional online resources. With this “new” type of blended learning in a home educational setting, it has been less educationally taxing for large families with limited technology access,” he said. 

Despite making the best of the current situation, passionate teachers like DeCarbo-Wagers can’t wait to get back in the classroom again.

“Teaching is an emotional job. The connections and bond that we form with our students is an unbreakable one. While we are definitely making it work, at the end of the day there is nothing that can replace being in the classroom with my students, face-to-face. I miss hugging my students, seeing their faces light up when they learn something new, telling them ‘I love you! See you tomorrow!’ at the end of each day, and sitting beside them as I listen to them read.”


Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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