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NewsMay 5, 2020

Alumni educators adapt to a new normal

Lesley graduates tap their creativity and passion to support students and families remotely

Sydney Chaffee, Kyair Butts, and Glenda Colon
(L to r) Sydney Chaffee, Kyair Butts, and Glenda Colon

Since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the country, primary and secondary school educators have had to find creative ways to engage with students. We spoke with three Lesley alumni who are learning new lessons, finding ways to support their students during the pandemic and making plans for what the future may bring.

Glenda Colon


Glenda Colon ’08, principal of Connery Elementary School, Lynn, Massachusetts

Since the schools closed, Glenda Colon has worked to maintain a sense of continuity for her students and their families in a city where access to resources can be limited.

“A big focus…is figuring out how to bring learning to families no matter what technology needs they have. As a school leader, you also have to consider your communication plan for teachers, families and students,” says Colon.

The coronavirus has hit Lynn hard, and following the lead of the superintendent, Colon has worked daily with teachers and staff to check on as many families as possible and dons personal protective gear to distribute books and materials to students in person.

A third of the families at Connery are Spanish-speaking, so Colon uses an online translation app and sends all school-wide communications in English and Spanish. A parent liaison, who is trusted in the community, also makes regular phone calls to families.

As financial hardships increase, however, “We are noticing more and more phones have been disconnected,” says Colon, who has worked with the city to provide grab-and-go meals for families.

She’s also found that many parents are overwhelmed trying to manage work and support their children's schoolwork, so educators at Connery are providing materials that can accommodate work schedules and limited access to technology. Colon’s district created activities for each grade and ability that can be done in most environments and that are thematic across levels, so parents with children of different ages can help them learn similar content. 

“We have taken time to consider the potential barriers that children might have, and have created tasks that allow the students to see their environment in a new way,” says Colon, who has a master’s degree from Lesley in creative arts and learning. She is also helping her two school-aged sons manage schoolwork and life in quarantine.

“My youngest decided he wanted to pillow fight with me over a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich while I was in the middle of a Zoom Board Meeting. Prior to this year, I would’ve been mortified if that happened, but I’m learning through this experience…This is life, and our kids yearn for our attention. We have to recognize that they are going through big changes in their lives, and they have needs that they are still managing and trying to understand.

A headshot of Sydney Chaffee.

Sydney Chaffee ’07, humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter School, Dorchester, Massachusetts

Since March 11, Sydney Chaffee has worked from her home, where she lives with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. On this day, Chaffee had just finished overseeing her daughter’s pretend classroom. “We’re having some cluster management issues this morning in doll school,” she explains.

In early March, Chaffee couldn’t have imagined her current reality as she and her colleagues prepared two weeks of lessons for students to take home. Then came the announcement that school would be closed until April 27, then May 27. “It was so overwhelming. It was very much all hands on deck.”

Chaffee is grateful for how her school has handled the crisis. “They’ve taken a really humane approach — there’s been a lot of flexibility and understanding. I have friends who are teaching at schools across the the state and across the country — the schools that are trying to replicate an exact school day are not being successful.”

The 2017 National Teacher of the Year meets regularly with her ninth grade coaches and co-teachers to discuss what is and isn’t working.

“An important part of our school culture is this concept of ‘crew.’ It comes from something that Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound said: ‘We are crew, not passengers.’ That mindset is very much alive.”

As the weeks go on, Chaffee continues to adapt, always looking for feedback from students and ways to support them.

"We're really starting to see the impact on kids," says Chaffee, who earned her master's degree in education from Lesley. We have a kid who's had a number of deaths in their family. It's getting scarier for kids whose parents work in health care, so we make sure that they know it's important to come online and learn, but it's more important to stay safe and healthy."

Kyair Butts holding his framed award.

Kyair Butts ’14, sixth-grade teacher at Waverly Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore, Maryland

“Some days are great,” says Kyair Butts. “Some days I’m thinking: ‘How am I in my home and it’s 4 p.m. and I still haven’t eaten breakfast?’”

Butts began doing live lessons online with students on March 17.

“I saw this was going to be a need just for a sense of normalcy for my kids, to let them know that I’m not going anywhere, that school’s not going anywhere.”

The 2019 Baltimore Teacher of the Year has always been a hands-on teacher. Even before the coronavirus, Butts had twice-weekly calls with families. That pandemic hasn’t altered that.

“I miss the fist bumps, the hugs, the joking around. I miss the rush of kids coming in for breakfast. I miss a lot of things that have nothing to do with prepping lessons.”
Kyair Butts ’14, Master's in elementary and special education

“I’m always very communicative with families, so I was able to reach out to parents very early via text or phone,” says Butts, who earned a master’s in elementary and special education from Lesley.

Like Chaffee and Colon, he’s found that a multi-pronged approach to learning works best, using a combination of Google Classroom, packets sent to homes and curricula available online.

On a typical day, about half of his students join the live online classroom.

“So far my kids are handling it well and they share with me when things are stressful at home. They’re frightened, they’re bored, they’re worried about parents who still have to go to work,” says Butts.

Curriculum focused on resiliency and courage and crisis have been particularly timely for his students, and while interacting online in real time has been helpful, Butts wishes there was no screen between him and his class.

“I miss the fist bumps, the hugs, the joking around. I miss the rush of kids coming in for breakfast. I miss a lot of things that have nothing to do with prepping lessons.”

The pandemic has served to give Butts an even greater awareness of the inequities and obstacles his students face. 

“It’s tough, but it’s important to have that conversation. COVID-19 has exposed a lot of disparities in ‘tech-quity’ that were already there—not everyone has access to technology. We do need to think about the institution of school and how a building equalizes things. There are going to be real consequences from this for a generation of schoolchildren that we won’t understand for a long time. The more we can do together to promote student wholeness and wellness, and to be smart about sharing resources, the more we can mitigate the impact.”