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NewsSep 17, 2020

A school year like no other

Lesley teachers find ways to adapt, innovate and support each other while teaching during the pandemic

Kyair Butts' bitmoji classroom
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.”

“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. We know how to connect with students, how to make content sing, how to build relationships.”
Sydney Chaffee ’07

Thinking differently

Associate Professor of Elementary Education Frank Daniello has been meeting with Lesley alumni teachers in Thursday evening Zoom sessions to brainstorm and talk about their concerns going into the school year. He finds that much of the conversation is focused on how to build connections and relationships with students and their families outside the traditional structures of classrooms and parent-teacher nights. It’s a huge opportunity, he says, to think differently and his former students are rising to the challenge, finding ways to recreate the usual ice-breakers and morning meetings remotely.

One first-year teacher, Caroline Acquaviva ’20, mailed colorful “Where’s Waldo?” postcards to all of her new students as a get-to-know-you exercise. “It’s good that these conversations are happening,” Dr. Daniello says. “We get stuck in what we do every year—sometimes we bore kids to death. Now you have to up your game!”

Carolyn Acquaviva '20 is sending postcards to her new students
Caroline Acquaviva '20 mailed colorful postcards to her new students.

Among Lesley teaching alumni and education faculty, there is a heightened sense of solidarity and support. Lesley Associate Professor of Middle and Secondary Education Brooke Eisenbach has taken to Twitter to deliver messages of thanks and encouragement to teachers and to criticize the practice of having teachers simultaneously teaching students in the classroom and remotely, noting that it is “not developmentally or pedagogically appropriate”—a position that many of her colleagues support.

Cusack feels an even greater empathy towards teachers more now than ever. “We should learn to thank them more often for the work that they’re doing.”

Navigating the new world of remote learning has tested boundaries in unexpected ways, as teachers and students interact with each other in a strangely intimate new online space.

“The best way I've seen it described is this: We are now guests in our students’ homes,” says Chaffee. “How can we act like it? How can we honor the trust that they and their families are already putting in us?”

Many educators are also concerned about the many inequities exposed by the pandemic.

“COVID has highlighted so many inequalities — food insecurity, safe home environments, access to technology,” Daniello says. “It’s a huge opportunity for systemic change.”

“We should learn to thank teachers more often for the work that they’re doing.”
Sue Cusack

Prioritizing strong relationships

Across the board, Lesley educators are pleased that schools seem to be prioritizing socio-emotional learning.

“If you make meaningful connections, you make the opportunity for meaningful learning to happen,” says Cusack. And you can’t do this without the families. This is a prime opportunity for building relationships with families.”

Chaffee is trying to make space for her students to connect with each other.

“I know that my students want to connect and are missing the social aspects of school,” says Chaffee. “I've started to see kids using the beginning of class to joke with each other and get to know each other, and I'm purposefully keeping the first ten minutes of class a little loose to allow for those more social moments of connection.”

Looking ahead

It’s hard to imagine how the school year will go and what changes are in store, but Lesley educators are looking hopefully towards the future.

“Once I go back to teaching in my classroom, I’ll be able to transfer a lot of my new knowledge to in-person teaching,” Chaffee says. “I'm going to be a better teacher, not just because I’ll have more tools in my toolbox, but also because I’ve been forced to reflect, in these past six months, on whether my practices truly serve students.”

“My hope is that the field will take this as an opportunity to be reflective rather than judgmental,” says Cusack, quoting Lesley MFA faculty member and author Jason Reynolds: “Crawl towards judgment, sprint towards understanding.