Wilson Seely wants to teach middle schoolers to “be good people, good learners.”
For the past two months, it’s become a bigger challenge.
“That’s really hard to do through a computer screen,” the Whitehorse Middle School teacher said.
The novel coronavirus pandemic, which closed schools through at least the end of this academic year, has taken a toll on the energetic eighth-grade AVID, math and science teacher’s passion for work.
“Teaching, I wake up every day excited to go to my job,” he said. “Now a lot of that is gone.”
When school let out for the weekend on March 13, Seely and many other teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District didn’t know it would be the last time they would see their students in person this year.
“I remember that Friday, I was like, ‘Don’t worry kids, I’ll see you Monday,’” Seely recalled.
Within a few hours it was clear there would be some kind of closure, but it wasn’t to begin until the middle of the following week. Two days later, Public Health Madison & Dane County declared schools closed immediately, and a later order from Gov. Tony Evers required they remain closed for the academic year.
For teachers, the two-and-a-half months without seeing their students in the classroom have hit hard. For the first few weeks of the closure, there were optional academic packets made available to families but no scheduled instruction. Virtual learning began in earnest in early April, as the district hustled to get devices to students who didn’t have them at home. It has since worked to get families internet access to ensure all students can participate, though that is still in progress.
As the district set out minimum expectations, teachers and schools have been left to develop their own plans for reaching students themselves or with their teaching teams. Some, like at Sandburg Elementary School, have created full Google Sites for their students with daily schedules, school work and optional enrichment activities if they have the capacity.
Others are doing daily Zoom meetings with their classes, not always well-attended, while yet more upload worksheets and have “office hours,” spending their time on one-on-one Zoom meetings to work more directly with students. Mostly, they’re responding to what their students are asking for, at least those who they are in contact with.
Some teachers said they feel good about how they’ve adapted their lessons and the participation they’re seeing from students online, while others are concerned about falling attendance and how long this will be required.
But nearly every teacher who spoke with the Cap Times agreed on one thing: they miss their students and the life of a classroom.
“I’m putting out a lesson. I don’t get the rewards of seeing their lightbulbs go off, seeing the connections be made, seeing them grapple with their abstract thinking,” said O’Keeffe Middle School teacher Tracy Warnecke. “Some kids are really engaged in giving me high quality work, some kids are completely dialing it in.
“I take attendance and then I grade. That’s not the reason I went into teaching, to take attendance and grade,” she said.
Warnecke and others who have been in the profession for a long time have had to suddenly change everything they’ve come to know about how to run a classroom effectively. It has her colleague Kent Wedemeyer, in his second year at O’Keeffe after more than a decade in Sun Prairie, feeling like “a first-year teacher again after 15 years of teaching.”
“Everybody became a first-year teacher overnight,” Wedemeyer said.
Will Huth, a math teacher at West High School, said that he and his colleagues worked to figure out the most important things the students needed to learn before the end of the school year. But they needed to balance that with recognizing the personal challenges for their students.
“These kids are going through the most probably hectic time of their life and... big picture, it’s more important to make sure these kids are OK,” Huth said. “We don’t want to give them so much stuff they are spending their entire day in front of a computer.”
Amid the adjustments, teachers are balancing their desire to find a sense of normalcy and see their students again in person with a recognition of the health risks at play amid a pandemic. Sandburg Elementary School teacher Emily Mabie said that while “this kind of blows in a lot of ways,” she doesn’t want to be back at school until she’s sure everyone can be safe and healthy.
“This isn’t what I signed up for, obviously, and I miss my kids so much,” said Mabie. “But I prefer missing them and them being safe and their families being alive to seeing them when we are not having vaccines available.”
Losing face-to-face instruction
Many teachers thrive on the feedback they get from their students.
Whether it’s formal reflections on a unit or simply reading body language in the middle of an activity, it can be key to how teachers adjust their lessons and teaching style from year-to-year, day-to-day and even hour-to-hour.
“When you have kids sitting in seats in a classroom, you’re guaranteed at least their presence,” said Benjamin Hulbert, a Sandburg Elementary School bilingual resource teacher. “You have an audience, and we don’t have that any more.”
With the move online, teachers are providing work to the students but not getting to watch them work through it or immediately respond to their questions and needs.
“There’s nothing like sitting with a kid as they move through something to be responsive in that moment to exactly what they need. It’s so hard to do that at a distance,” said Emily Kintzer, an English Language Learner teacher at O’Keeffe. “I can provide a lot of feedback later, but that’s not when they need it.”
At Sandburg, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Christopher Rago said staff were well-prepared to adapt on the academic side, given their support from their principal in recent years to try different approaches to reach their students. He contrasts it with his first-grade daughter’s experience at a school that only began using devices amid the pandemic, as one of the last schools on the district’s one-to-one technology plan.
“The difference in what we are doing with technology, it gives me a little bit of comfort,” Rago said. “We seem to have a pretty good flow now with our classes.”
Teachers and buildings around the district are all doing things their own way, without having had much professional development toward virtual learning. Warnecke said she doesn’t blame the district for that, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, but she knows more will be needed over the summer if virtual learning is a possibility for the fall.
For her, a recent Zoom chat with a student about how to improve their writing — at the student’s request — was “actually a moment where I felt like I was teaching again,” as she recalled a long tangent on the power of semicolons.
“We talked for about 45 minutes about his paper, and he said, ‘Wow, that actually for a moment felt like we were back in the classroom,’” she said.
The achievement gap between black students and their white peers has been a persistent problem in Madison, highlighted in 2013 by the Race to Equity report.
While school staff can’t change many of the inequities students face outside of school, for eight hours a day, staff could give kids in-person access to resources, teachers and personal relationships. Now, that’s gone.
“We’re just continuing to privilege the same kids who are always privileged in education and that feels really gross,” Mabie said. “It just feels like the disparities are growing in a way that makes me sad and uncomfortable.”
Her principal at Sandburg agreed that the inequities will likely get larger through this pandemic, but stressed that schools should not be to blame, pointing to all of the efforts teachers and staff are making to connect families with what they need beyond academics.
“That’s one of the most frustrating things, is this culture of blaming schools for the inequities that are present in our society,” said Sandburg principal Brett Wilfrid.
Some teachers noticed it early on, watching as the same students missed Zoom meetings or didn’t turn in work. Seely said hearing from his students is his only ask.
“If I don’t hear from you for a whole week, that’s when I’m going to worry,” he said.
O’Keeffe’s Kintzer said that with so much happening for families, she’s had to accept that some just don’t have the capacity to access a system that’s unfamiliar for everyone.
“The hardest part is knowing that we’re not reaching really vulnerable students,” Kintzer said. “Just seeing week after week the same names come up as not accessing any of their education through school.”
She and other teachers are confident that when school returns, their colleagues will do what is necessary to catch students up on material missed. In the meantime, Warnecke and others are changing expectations, simply asking students and families to do what they can. MMSD high schools moved to pass/no pass for the rest of the year, as well.
“At the end of the day, to keep it equitable, I’m not grading anything,” Warnecke said. “If your kid just needs to daily write their emotions in a journal, and you say they did it, I’ll pass them.”
Focus beyond academics
At West High School, social studies teacher Shawn Matson said, students are being asked to complete one assignment per class per week and check in with the teacher once a week at least.
It’s a balance, Matson said, to make “reasonable requests of my students, showing flexibility and care, and helping my students make it through this time in their lives.”
He praised the school administration’s approach to the transition, saying principal Karen Boran asked teachers to “start small.”
“We haven’t accomplished as much as we would have in person but we have continued to support our students and make the best of the situation,” he said. “The last thing we need right now is onerous and stressful demands for anyone.”
From day one, that well-being outside of academics was on the mind of many teachers.
“Before you even start talking about academics, there’s the 1,000 other things,” Lincoln Elementary School teacher Anna Berg said. “That’s what’s really hitting me emotionally, is everybody OK?”
With that in mind, she’s making sure to be clear about her expectations for her third-graders.
“I’ve told my families, ‘Have your kids do anything that works for you,’” she said. “Whatever it takes for their mental health to be as good as possible, is what I want for them. Every single teacher and teaching team, it’s sort of been up to them to figure out what that looks like and what that might be.”
Seely is finding students crave an outlet for their personal frustrations through this time.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails from kids reaching out just who need to talk or need to vent, who are clearly getting in a different kind of appreciation for the classroom environment that we had,” Seely said.
Even for those who show up to the Zoom calls, Seely said, it’s clear they’re feeling stressed as he can hear it “in their tone.”
“That’s a hard way to start every day, to hear a group of young people that you care very much about and to hear that pain in their voice and to feel sort of helpless,” Seely said. “To go into the rest of your day and say, ‘Hey let’s go do virtual learning,’ it feels disheartening.”
Work-life balance, or not
When home becomes the workplace, it’s hard to disconnect.
Many employees have transitioned to working from home since the pandemic began, blurring the lines between work and life. It’s especially true for teachers, who want to be attentive to family schedules and restrictions, which can mean the best time for learning for one student could be 12 hours earlier than a classmate’s.
“We had to make a whole new schedule of your day,” said Lincoln Elementary School program support teacher Jill Binon. “School isn’t from 8 o’clock to 3:30 anymore. It’s from the time the emails start until the text messages stop.”
Berg, at Lincoln Elementary, said she’s recognized in recent weeks that “it’s been really hard” to set boundaries, even when she sets office hours and tries to tune out of work at other times. If a parent texts her at 6 p.m., she said, “of course I’m going to respond to them.”
“I’m also having to make the really hard choices, right now especially, to figure out how to set emotional boundaries,” she said.
Mabie is facing the same problem, though she said surprises like having lunch with a student and their family when she was expecting a one-on-one Zoom call can be “the coolest part of this time right now.” At night, she tries to turn notifications off and avoid work, but she is struggling to find the best way to both “preserve and foster those relationships” while taking care of herself.
“That’s a big challenge when families need to feel connected to us,” she said. “That’s a balance I navigate during the physical school year, but it’s a lot harder to balance virtually.”
For others with their own children at home, it’s taken work to figure out a schedule that allows them to spend family time together, help their students and work with their kids at home on their school work. Wedemeyer, whose wife is a teacher outside of Madison, said they eventually figured out they needed to take specific shifts where one was parenting and the other was focused in on work without distractions.
“We’ve had to do a concentrated effort to say, ‘No, these four hours are yours, you don’t have to parent right now,’” he said.
What comes next?
The key to all of this working, insofar as it is, has been the five-and-a-half months of relationship-building teachers had with students before schools closed.
If school remains closed at the beginning of next year, as some around the country and district administration have discussed as a possibility, teachers will be without that advantage.
“We think about the fall — how am I supposed to do this work when I don’t even know who these students are? When I don’t even have a relationship with these families?” Warnecke said.
So much of the experience of the past two months has been knowing what to expect from students, how to communicate with their families and recognizing the various situations at home students may face as they try to complete work — whether it’s taking care of siblings, doing chores or managing a stressful environment otherwise.
That will be harder if virtual learning is still in place at the beginning of next school year, which would also have thousands of students entering different schools they have no familiarity with, as they move from elementary to middle or middle to high school.
“We’re coasting on our strength of our relationships right now,” Wedemeyer said. “At some point, the coasting isn’t going to keep working.”
In the meantime, some teachers have noticed a few students are more engaged using this format. They’re hoping to learn lessons from this challenge on flexibility, allowing students to drive more of their own learning.
Students at Sandburg, where that student-driven approach was already in practice, are writing during this time through blogging about whatever interests them that day, for example. Hulbert said one student who never raised a hand in class is now writing regularly.
“It’s cool to see kids who struggled the past year are all-of-a-sudden participating at a level you’ve never seen before,” he said. “(We are) letting kids do things and giving them choice, but giving them also a lot of time and no real schedule to do it, letting them engage in it when they’re ready.”
It could mean some adjustments in the classroom, but the importance of those lessons could be magnified if public health or elected officials keep schools closed — or even if they don’t.
Warnecke observed that if schools reopen in the fall, some families may choose to keep their children home for health reasons. Yet if buildings remain closed, some may opt-out because of struggles with virtual learning; a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, she said.
Wedemeyer is worried how that will affect the concept of public education in a broad sense, even as he’s confident he and his colleagues can make up for whatever in-person time is lost when students return.
“Not so much me individually as a teacher, but what does that say, how does that change education in general?” Wedemeyer said. “That larger societal issue of what does it mean to be a public school, that’s the part that scares me.”
Seely took a break from following the news too closely when the discussions about fall began, choosing to focus on the present using the mindfulness techniques he’s picked up over the past few years.
Possibly losing more classroom time and the football season he coaches is “heartbreaking for me to think about,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s doing his best to focus on the positive moments and remind himself how important he is to some students — one of whom emailed him to say she missed “getting yelled at by you every day,” he said.
“I had eight kids (on Zoom) this morning, and it only would take one for me for it to be enough,” Seely said. “If it helps one kid get through the day, just seeing my face on their computer screen and hearing me try to make them laugh is enough for them to check in every morning, then I’ll keep doing it.”
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