Sixth grade teacher Kyair Butts '14 created a Bitmoji classroom to help introduce himself to his new students.
The start of a new school year is an exciting and often stressful time for teachers — full of anticipation, preparations, maybe a sleepless night or two worrying about lesson plans, and classrooms full of new students. But the advent of the 2020-2021 school year finds teachers coping with bewildering levels of worry and uncertainty as school systems adapt to life in pandemic times.
Teachers at every grade level are adjusting to teaching remotely, in socially distanced classrooms or in hybrid programs that combine remote and in-person learning. In the face of concerns about the health and well-being of their students, their colleagues and their own families, educators are mastering new technologies and adapting their curricula to remote learning. But despite challenges, Lesley teachers are also seeing this uneasy time as an opportunity to innovate, grow and connect with their students and each other.
A major transition
Since the pandemic began in March, Assistant Professor Sue Cusack, director of Lesley’s STEAM Learning Lab, has been focused on helping teachers and Lesley faculty make a successful transition to online learning, serving on Lesley’s Virtual Academic Experience Task Force and teaching workshops for Cambridge and Somerville educators and Lesley teaching alumni.
“Schools are under a lot of pressure to address what has been a very challenging situation. In Massachusetts every school was required to produce a plan to for face to face, virtual and hybrid– and there are some teachers who were expected to offer all three of those modalities in the same week,” says Cusack.
While she’s confident that teachers can master the new skills, inconsistent access to technology and support is a challenge, as well as the feeling that change will be a constant.
“What’s been most exhausting for teachers has been the global uncertainty,” says Cusack. “It’s really exhausting not knowing. There’s been kind of a slow reveal on information.”
Back in the spring, Baltimore sixth grade school teacher Kyair Butts ’14 made a rapid adjustment to remote teaching, but he has spent much of the summer refining his methods and incorporating the feedback he’s received from students and families. The 2019 Baltimore Teacher of the Year and a self-described “over-communicator” who stays in close touch with families through weekly texts and emails, he is focused on getting to know his three sections of new sixth graders and their parents while also staying flexible and setting clear expectations for high quality work. A brief recent visit to his school building left him wistful, “It was great to be there, even walking through the empty cafeteria!” Still, he’s excited about the creative opportunities that remote learning offers and eager to share his latest project — a Bitmoji classroom complete with a Black Lives Matter poster and images of Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Chance the Rapper — with his students.
Alumna Sydney Chaffee ’07 doesn’t downplay the difficulty of adapting to remote learning.
“I spent the first week feeling like I was trying to teach from the inside of a pinball machine. But we have to remember that we know how to teach,” says Chaffee, 2017 National Teacher of the Year. “We know how to connect with students, how to make content sing, how to build relationships.”
She worries that many schools are too concerned with setting intrusive rules and norms for online learning.
“We shouldn't spend time and energy policing what students wear in online classes, or telling them not to eat a snack. We shouldn't penalize kids for not wanting to turn on their cameras,” says Chaffee. “We should spend more time getting resources to teachers to help us build our skills and our confidence with online teaching. We should be working hard to form relationships with students and families, not alienating them by trying to recreate strict school norms in their own homes.”