Gratitude Day 476
Thurs., June 18, 2020
Luke 13:10 – Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.
It was SUPPOSED to be a one-week extension of spring break. Instead, it turned into almost three months of remote teaching.
Pam Wentz teaches 5th grade at a private school in the Madison area. Mid-March, teachers were instructed to prepare for one week of in-home instruction following their planned spring break week. Unfortunately, like all the rest of Wisconsin schools, remote learning continued through the end of the school year.
Pam is a creative, thoughtful, and very proficient teacher. She taught in public schools before accepting her current position at a private school. But COVID-19 had this seasoned schoolteacher questioning her ability to connect, provide adequate instruction and ensure her students were receiving quality education.
“I spent hours and hours on the computer,” Pam says. “While I thought I was fairly proficient with technology, remote learning made me feel my age and realize that I had a lot to learn.”
Teachers weren’t the only ones learning new technology. Many students were discovering how to use Google chats, ZOOM and other new ways to connect and learn. Students were familiar with YouTube, but this and other online resources allowed for students to also be distracted.
As Pam remotely taught 33-5th graders, she also oversaw and made sure her own kids, ages 16, 15 and 10, completed their schoolwork. Keeping everyone motivated and dialed in often felt like a Herculean feat.
“Early on, I recorded lessons and uploaded them so students could watch at their convenience,” Pam says. “I quickly discovered what a nightmare recording a 15-minute video was. Kids were walking through the screen, dogs barking in the background and of course, mistakes. A 15-minute video could take HOURS to complete and upload.”
Eventually, the school moved to more live online learning. Instruction began at 9 AM when Pam would have a group check-in with her eight advisory students. She made sure students knew what live classes they needed to attend, when they were and whether they had the right ZOOM link for each class. Often instructing online until 2:30 or 3 PM, Pam reviewed and graded schoolwork after online teaching was completed.
She quickly realized other teachers had more demanding situations than she did. “I work with another teacher who has three very small children,” Pam says. “For her, live teaching online often included having a child present.”
With entire family units often working and learning from home, challenges like internet speed, space and quiet environments ensued. Sometimes, principals, teachers and students would confine themselves to a closet because this was the only quiet place they could find.
The emotions of not being able to see her students on a regular basis caught Pam off-guard. “It’s just not the same meeting on a ZOOM call,” she said. “Some students showed up for class, ready to go. Others had just rolled out of bed. Some students were not as reliable about participating.”
It was hard to know exactly what was going on in each student’s home situation. Anxiety levels could increase quickly. Often, she had private student conversations to discover what was going on in their lives. Sometimes, other family members were driving a student crazy. Some students had parents who work in healthcare and were not able to interact with family members because of safety concerns. One student shared how their Dad quarantined himself in their basement and was only able to talk with their Dad from the top step of the basement stairs while the Dad was in the basement.
Pam experienced additional anxiety herself. “I didn’t sign up to teach from a desk chair,” she said. “I love to move and have interaction and meaningful long-term projects for students. The whole situation began to take its toll on me. I felt my anxiety rising. I realized teaching this way was going to be hard. I could either let this be difficult or I could let different be OK.”
Pam identified a specific challenging day when she returned to the school building and packed up all of her student’s things. Working within a small timeframe, the school issued strict safety protocols for teachers to follow. “It was so disappointing to be in the classroom without the students,” Pam said.
Some students thrived in the remote learning experience. One of the Wentz’s children was able to accomplish their schoolwork quickly. This child read a ton of books and picked other special projects.
There was also grief and disappointment of not being able to do many things 5th graders look forward to every year. “We celebrate everyone’s birthday,” Pam said. “Our four advisors divided up the students and made sure those with birthdays during the stay-in-place order had a decorated driveway and/or a recorded message from the class on their birthday. In fact, some of the teachers did this for me on my birthday.”
Normally, 5th graders have an overnight campout at the school. Students learn how to pitch a tent, build a fire and other things associated with camping. A highlight of the year, students talk about this outing from the beginning of the school year. This spring, it was a virtual campout. Students made campfires in their backyards and the music teacher lead songs. “It wasn’t the same, but it was the best we could do,” says Pam.
Were there advantages of remote teaching? “Yes, course!” says Pam. She appreciated being able to eat lunch with her kids every day. Normally, their family calendar is stuffed to the gills. With the stay-in-place order, their family life thrived. Everyone was home for dinner. They planned and cooked meals and played games together. Pam read with her youngest daughter in the hammock on a regular basis. The family came to love worshipping through online church.
How does Pam anticipate school to look like in the fall? Most schools are planning multiple options, not knowing exactly what will be feasible come August and September. Pam feels there will be some remedial catch-up, as it is difficult to continue school business as usual when it wasn’t expected.
When Jesus began his public ministry, it became quickly apparent that he would teach people in very non-traditional ways. On the side on a mountain. Using ordinary, regular parts of their culture. He was chastised for teaching on the Sabbath, something considered heretical.
Jesus gives us the wonderful example of challenging ourselves to think differently about teaching. Try new things. Assume there is more than one way to do something. Embrace teaching and learning in a new way, including remotely.
Not everyone accepted Jesus’ new teaching methods. Some folks thought his unorthodox methods were reason enough to severely punish him. Yet, this did not deter Jesus from sticking with his main messages. Hopefully, we all appreciate education a bit more these days. Pam values even more her fellow teachers, the students, and the classroom setting.
“Maybe there’s another lesson here with COVID-19,” Pam says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all found ourselves walking a little closer with Jesus and Jesus’ teachings in light of this time?”
To historically document this time, her students designed and published a COVID-19 newsletter. Students wrote stories and shared their experiences of living through the pandemic. Hopefully, this newsletter will be used for years to come as a reminder of how remote teaching was possible and how the virus affected so much of life.
Thank you to Pam and the thousands of other teachers who went above and beyond to remotely teach students through the coronavirus.
For all the school staff who supported and conducted remote learning, and everything affiliated with it, I am grateful.
Too often, we find ourselves accepting the comfortable and easy way to do something because “this is the way it’s always been done.” As our comfortable boxes have been stretched so much in these last months, may we continue to be guided and directed by Your Holy Spirit to find new ways to teach and learn. Amen.
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