Community Spotlight: Teaching During a Pandemic?

Teaching during a pandemic? A valid question that has been brought to the forefront as COVID-19 began to spread, causing school districts to initiate school closures for the rest of the school year.

AmeriCorps VISTA, Bryana Samuel, currently serving the Renton School District, wanted to shine a spotlight on local teachers and get a better sense of what teaching in a pandemic really looks like.

Bryana interviewed Ms. Elizabeth Gordon-Smith, a 4th grade teacher at Bryn Mawr Elementary School. Here is how she responded:

What is your favorite thing about being a teacher? Connecting with my students. Building relationships is really the most rewarding and important part of my job.

What inspired you to become a teacher? My undergraduate degree is in Japanese, and I lived in Japan for two years teaching English in elementary and middle schools as well as translating for the district. I realized that I wasn’t too keen on the translation aspect, but I loved being with the kids! When I left Japan, I went straight into a Master’s program to get a teaching degree.

How have you adapted your class(s) to comply with the stay-at-home order? My team was really lucky because we had already built up a lot of the students’ skills using school laptops for writing projects, slideshow presentations, research, and even a few assignments on Google Classroom. It was always in person and with teacher support, though, so this has been a big transition! Still, a lot of the pieces were in place ahead of time thanks to the school’s (and community partners’) dedication to providing technology in the classroom.

One thing that hasn’t changed is how well our teaching team and educational coaches work together. That means I’m not overwhelmed with just getting the basics out and I can work on teaching better every day. We have been able to improve quickly and adapt content into videos, podcasts, and activities that suit the new digital platform. We’re researching articles on ideal video length and methods or finding browser extensions that incorporate translation software for our English language learners. We’re teaching students to interact with us and each other through comments and email and setting up class meetings with videoconferencing software.

What can parents do to help their kids learn during this difficult time? A lot of parents think that they need to become their child’s new teacher, and it is a huge burden and source of guilt. It’s hard for stay-at-home careers at the best of times, and if you have a job? In the middle of a pandemic? I’m a professional and not doing it “right” with my own daughter!

The biggest thing parents can do is work to make their kids feel safe and loved and to take care of their own health. Are academics important? Of course! But kids can’t learn if they are scared and feeling out of control. If busy and stressed families have to choose between completing a list of math problems and having a family meal together… choose the family meal. If you can spend your energy on fighting through the full 30 minutes of reading time, or on asking your child about how they’re feeling…choose the conversation. And if you’re feeling wrung out and torn between responsibilities, take some time for yourself! You can be a superhero, but you can only be a superhero for so long. Eventually, you are going to burn out, and then you can’t help anyone. It’s hard, though; I’m struggling with that one myself.

Is there anything you would like Renton families to know? Your child’s teacher is not judging you. When we call home, it’s not to check your teaching work or demand things of you– we want to help and connect! If you’re avoiding that call because you have been kicking yourself over not doing good enough, know that we are not grading you. Tell us what you are struggling with, so we can help find solutions. We can connect kids and families to counselors, financial resources, donations, and advice. We have a team of staff at Bryn Mawr working full time to support the community, and it’s not just at our school. Tell your child’s teacher when you need help! We can only get through this together, and you don’t need to be an island. Reach out.

All in all, the teachers are ready and willing to make constant connections and help their students in any way they can. Families can take solace in knowing that they have so much support during this stressful time. There is no judgment, only charitable and forgiving support. Together we can and will make it through this together!