Podcast: Teaching During COVID-19 with Priyank Bhatt on Teachers in America

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Welcome back to the podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. On this episode, high school teacher Priyank Bhatt (West Side High School in Newark, NJ) joins Noelle Morris for a follow-up episode on the effects that COVID-19 has had on his students and his district.

Content Warning: This episode deals with losses suffered as a result of COVID-19.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH learning moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's installment is the second of a two-part Teachers in America episode hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris.

When we last spoke with Priyank, he was teaching in-person at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Soon after our discussion, school closures took place, and remote learning became the norm for classrooms across the country. At one point, New Jersey was at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. We wanted to catch up with Priyank in order to find out how he was doing and what measures his school had taken in order to adapt to the students' social, emotional, and educational needs.

Now, here are Priyank and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: So, hi, Pri! Nice to talk to you again. I know the last time we had a conversation—can you believe it—it was right before Thanksgiving. In fact, I can remember leaving your school, so happy and excited. We had just a great conversation, and then I remember, as I was leaving, I met some of your other school faculty team members. And [one faculty member] and I just started talking about frying turkeys. Like, what was I going to do for Thanksgiving?

And now here we are, many days later. [We] had no concept of what we would be experiencing come February, March, 2020. Let us know what has been happening with you as you’ve adjusted to the pandemic and some of the challenges we've all faced with COVID.

Priyank Bhatt: Well, good morning, and thank you for having me on again. Yes, it seems like so many years ago, it feels like, since we last saw each other.

I think the main thing we've been working on since the pandemic started, and since we, as a team, found out that most of the instruction from March up until the end of the school year was going to be virtual, is, “Okay, so how do we adapt, not just for ourselves as educators, but how do we help students who are not used to this kind of lifestyle, who are not used to being independent? How do we help them with these adjustments?”

And then I think there was a lot of time spent restructuring, going through, talking, having a lot of meetings, and just kind of figuring out the best system to implement in order to maximize efficiency, maximize learning, and maximize the outcome that we were hoping that we would be able to see during these times.

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Priyank Bhatt in his classroom before COVID-19 resulted in school closures

Noelle: I appreciate how you just said “students who are not used to possibly so much independence,” because, in the nature of what I saw in your classroom, that's exactly what you had been striving for, enabling [students] to be independent in that classroom, [teaching them] how to support themselves, how to support others.

But you're right, in that now, how do I translate that? Because independence, as you know, means different things when you're sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and you're in your home environment [with things that are] normally (except for homework or projects) [in a] school environment. What were some of the interesting things that you learned and found both that made your heart feel good that your students were doing, and what you learned. . . from students that [you] weren't maybe prepared for.

Priyank: Right. Well, so when I think of independence, I think of when they're in the classroom, they're relying on themselves. They're relying on their peers to help [them] to at least do some of these problems before they ask [me] or come to me for help.

Now, when the virtual sessions started, it was just a matter of, now they're completely on their own. They have to be responsible for logging in on time, completing the assignments, checking in regularly, [answering] the counselors that call them, the teachers that call them, and returning their calls.

There were a lot of things that they weren't so ready for, and we had to kind of help them prepare for that. You know, we talked about virtual and the rest—we talked about, if it goes virtual, yes, you'll be signing in, you'll be doing your work. But that meant you have to, not just sign it, but you have to check in regularly to Google classroom. You have to sign into other classes as well.

One of the obstacles that we uncovered during this was the students who were more comfortable with some of the subjects, [the subjects] that they were okay with or they were strong in, [students] were logging into those sessions more and more and more; they were doing that work. . . on a regular basis. While other sessions, for example, let's say math, which is something that [students] lacked confidence in—that they struggled with from the beginning—they would not be as engaged and focused. They would maybe log in once or twice a week instead of every day of the week. There'd be so many assignments that were missing.

Some of the strengths that I did notice were, even though they were struggling, they were trying. Whenever I sent out emails, I'd be like, “I'm so happy that you all are trying; you're doing your best. You're logging in. I can see you're frustrated.”

I know it's really hard, because one of the things that they’d mention was, “It is difficult for me to sit here and watch you teach when I'm used to having you by my side. Even though you tell me not to ask you for help, at least I know I can count on you, if I do need help. In this case, I'm in my room or I have nobody that [I] can ask for help. I can look on Google. I can search for videos, but some of the videos don’t help anyway.”

So, the persistence was there, which I was very proud of, and I mentioned that a lot. They were persistent. They tried to stay focused. They're vigilant. A lot of them had siblings they had to take care of; some of them were working. They would be staying up nights because of what's happening in their homes. Some of them had cousins and aunts and uncles that were coming over to stay at their houses because they wanted to stay together.

So, I mean, there were a lot of things that were going on at their homes. And I know we are aware of that through the discussions that we had with the students.

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Noelle: Is it the reality that some of them did support caregiving? Because now younger siblings are also at home, and there might be many families that had essential workers.

Priyank: Yeah. And there were multiple challenges there that we came across throughout the months that we were virtual learning. The instructional part was there, in regards to just basic instruction, and students having to log in and be independent and be critical thinkers on their own. But there were a lot of side challenges that came with it.

One of the ones that you mentioned was the siblings or the family. You know, we had students who were sharing one laptop amongst their family members. If you think about it, if you have a two or three younger siblings, and they also have to do that work. If you have parents who might also need a laptop for whatever work they're doing.

I remember actually, specifically, two or three of the students, when I did talk to them, they did say, “You know, I only have one laptop, so it's going to be really challenging.” So, we allowed the students to finish the work whenever they could. I would have students turning in assignments at two or three in the morning, which is why I left the assignments open. It wasn't like, “You have until 5:00 PM, and after 5:00 PM, if you don't turn it in, it's a zero.” No, it’s like, “You know what? I understand where you're coming from. I understand there's difficulties with virtual learning and with you being able to complete assignments in a timely fashion.” We had to adjust how we approach that situation. . . where we can adjust the deadline for students because there's nothing they can choose to do about that. You know, they're only sharing one laptop.

You also had some students who were having issues with something as simple as Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi would go out. Something would happen with their phones. They were using devices that weren’t functioning properly. There were a lot of technical issues that we saw.

And that's the other thing that we did. We sent out a message to all the communities that [said] they could go to pick up laptops and electronic devices [from the food distribution sites], in order to better assist them and to better assist the children with online learning. We did make those options available to a lot of the families.

And we told them multiple times. We had a community outreach program; we had letters sent out. We had the superintendent [and] the mayor make multiple calls to families, letting them know. Because, as you know, Newark is broken up into wards. It's easier if you know which ward you are in, which specific location you can go to that's most convenient for you. We told them, “This is where you can go. You can get your food. Because a lot of the families depended on, especially the students, the lunch provided and the breakfast. They were able to go [to the sites] to pick up the food and also pick up something as simple as an electronic device [that] they could bring back home and get their work done.

And we also made available actual physical packets [that] they could take home, because we even had two or three students who literally said, “You know, I like math, but I don't like doing math on the computer. I just like doing it on paper.” So they, not just my class, but other classes said, “Mr. Pri, listen, is it okay if I just do a packet? Can I just get a packet?”

They just didn't want to. . . and it's funny because, you know, I think back and I'm like, “You know, it's hilarious that you're saying you want a packet when you're supposed to be learning 21st century skills. When you go to college or whatever, what are you going to have? It's still only computer-based. You're going to have to learn to work on computer and do everything based on computers.”

But they're like, “No, no. . . if it's math, it has to be on paper, no matter what.” So, we also made packets available for those special cases when a student or a parent wanted a packet.

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Many students at West Side High School rely on the school's resources for daily meals and access to learning technology.

Noelle: You know, I think there's some merit in that, [the idea] of too much “device time,” and [a student thinking,] “I want to be able to see [a physical task] and have it accomplished. I would like to then be able to turn it back in and have a connection with my teacher beyond the computer.” There's merit and there's some passion and heart behind that that I think we could continue to uncover.

I did not know Newark was broken into wards. Communities get used to certain types of communication, but the fact that your superintendent and your mayor got behind and supported creating recorded calls that could go out to families to communicate was a really strong part of elevating your overall success and what you could do.

Did you have any students who you, you know, never got back in touch with? I mean, I've been reading about virtual dropouts and just the sense of students who did not communicate at all during this time. Did you experience that, and how did you all go about doing everything and anything that you could to make that connection?

Priyank: As soon as we found out that we were going to be virtual learning indefinitely. . . because at first we were like, “Maybe it'll be a month, maybe a month and a half, and we’ll be back around May-ish or June.” The first thing we did was we established a council and we established a team.

The counselors and some of the support staff were actually assigned to specific content areas of specific teachers, and their main responsibility was to just call families who we could not get in touch with. As a teacher, for example, I had sent out a lot of information because I knew the first thing we did—and I think that was me being proactive—one of the things I always do in the beginning of the year is I have [students] join my Google classroom. And at the time, even though we were not going to use it as much, [I’d say] “You're going to join the Google classroom, and then every now and then, maybe once a month or something, we'll log in. And that way, you're used to just joining the classroom, you know where to go to find this information.”

There [were] some students we knew that already joined Google classroom, and I was able to communicate to those students via Google classroom. Unfortunately, even though they had joined Google classroom, as soon as virtual learning started, there was no response. So for example, if I sent a message out to the student on a Monday, by Friday there would be no response. The next week, there would still be no response.

So, what we did was I would try to call the students’ families using whatever information I was given. If that family member or the student wasn't able to respond to me in a timely fashion, then I would give that information to the counselor or the person that was assigned to me, and we would try to reach that student.

Some of the time, we were successful, and the student would reach back to us. For example, two or three of my students said, “Listen, Mr. Pri, I've been trying my best to sign up and trying my best to do work, but it's just very difficult because of the timing. You know, I get up; I go to work.”

[One particular] student works at ShopRite...she was working while this was going on, technically, because she was an essential worker. So, she was working at a regular job. And then one of the sessions we had was in the morning, so she was working during those times. By the time she would come home—she had younger siblings—so she was always doing something family-related.

We noticed that that was the main reason why it was so difficult for us to contact each other. In that case, we established a system in which, every week, I would just email her the work. And instead of her joining my sessions, she would get an email that would say, “If you have questions, email me back; you can send me the completed work whenever you can.” And what she did was—as I mentioned about the paper—she would write her answers in a notebook, take pictures, and send me those pictures, instead of going into the computer, because that was too much for her. She would just write out the answers in the notebook and send me the pictures because that was faster and more convenient for her.

Noelle: Can I ask you to shift then, Pri, to the social-emotional learning side for yourself? I'd like you to think about yourself for a moment. How did you transition from that bright, energetic [teacher]? I remember you always on the move in that classroom. I never saw you sit down. I never saw you not moving your eyes around, looking for where you needed to move to work towards supporting a group of students. What was your own transition going from [being] a very social leader at the school physically to being virtual?

Priyank: Thank you for that question. I think the first thing was about energy. So, when I was logging into the sessions and I saw how the students were not focused or engaged, and I just saw the lack of energy, I said, “Well, I have to be the energetic one.” So, even [in] the virtual sessions, I was energetic. I was loud. I was a little obnoxious, you know, just going through like, “Oh, I see you watching a movie while I have my session. Oh, I see you texting your boyfriend.” I would just make these little comments here and there. They're like, “No, no, I'm checking my work.” We'll kind of joke around here and there. If I was energetic, if I was being this person that was positive, you know, I was hoping that would transfer to the students as well, and they would bring some energy, at least, to the classroom.

In that sense, emotionally, even though I knew this was a challenge because I'm not used to not being able to be there physically with the students, not being able to see where they're at, helping them get through the process.

It was definitely challenging, but, just like the students, I had to adjust. As long as I brought that energy with me, as long as I showed them that I was still there and I was still the same Mr. Pri, we're going to fool around and make them work as hard as possible. I think hopefully they would meet me at least halfway and then bring on that kind of energy. Bring on the engagement of focus and motivation.

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Noelle: I want to transition us now in this part of our conversation to the reality of: it is August. I mean between now and October, I would say, Pri, from what I'm reading, will be considered back to school. What have you all been doing at your school and as a team to prepare for learning loss [and] to be ready to support students where they are when they return?

Priyank: As educators, we definitely noticed there was learning loss when we were looking at the engagement level of the students and when we were looking at the progress. For example, some of the students were really bright when they were physically in the building, when they're physically in your classroom, and when it came to virtual [they] just kind of shut off.

We talk a lot about these students and, you know, what do we do to help these students when we see them again. We knew that there was going to be a lot of learning loss, because they weren't physically there. Even mentally, some of them were checked out.

I had one student who had all A's. She had all A's the first three quarters. And, for about a couple of weeks, she was there, but then she just checked out as well. We had to kind of decide, okay, how do we address this situation? The first thing we did was [decide], well, for the remainder of the school year, we can't just fail these students.

That was the first conclusion we came up with. We wanted to make sure we came up with the systems where we're celebrating these students because of their ability to not just adjust to this new kind of learning, but also persevere [with] this new kind of learning. We came up with a pass/fail system where, if a student showed some effort, [if] they showed some growth, [if] they were able to participate, [and if] they did something to demonstrate that they were willing to learn, they received a pass. The only students who received a fail were the students who were already failing before the pandemic started, and then, during the pandemic, it was really impossible to reach out to them. And, even after reaching out to them, they were just not willing to put in the effort.

And those were very few. Once we decided on that strategy, we had to figure out, okay, what happens in the fall? Now when we get these students back in the fall, how do we start? We can't start instruction just the way it was. We have to do a lot of what we call “reintroduction.”

Reintroduction is basically, you're still teaching what you're supposed to be teaching according to the curriculum, [but also] you're reintroducing some of the old skills as [it applies] to the new concepts. We had to do a little bit of work in regards to, for example, let's say that in May, according to the curriculum for Algebra 2, I'm supposed to be teaching Trig ratios.

I taught rate ratios. [Only] about 60% of the students were in those sessions, and [only] about 40% got Trig ratios. [Many students] were like, “Oh, okay. I get it.” But [in reality, Trig ratios went] right over their heads. And then, when I say, “Watch this video and ask questions,” the question would be, “I still don't get the video.” So, we said, okay, if the next topic they're learning is precalculus, where can I introduce Trig ratios again in that topic? So, that way, they can be like, “I remember you trying to teach me,” and, “I wasn't really paying attention. I'm glad you're teaching it now. I can kind of get a better understanding of this topic with what I'm going to be doing in the future.”

I think there was a lot of adjustments in regards to that—how do we adapt the curriculum [so] that we focus on a topic they should've mastered [but that we] didn't get to.

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Not all high-achieving students work as well at home as they do in a physical classroom.

Noelle: I want to ask you one more question that is going to pull us into emotion, because I'm sure there were students and maybe even faculty members who dealt with loss. Because you are in New Jersey, which next to New York, early on, faced the most devastation from the virus. What did you do as a school community to support students and faculty members who dealt with loss? And, again, I'm going to ask in the same question, if you're still working this out, how are you going to prepare for that and think about that [when] meeting students back in the fall?

Priyank: That's a tough question, because we did deal with loss, not just as a faculty, but as a district, there were losses among teachers and their families, but also amongst students and their families. I think there was communication between the principal and our school, and there was also communication between the superintendent and the teachers.

The superintendent had a group of teachers, which I was also part of, and during our monthly meetings, he would discuss how many cases are in Newark, and, specifically, how many families have losses, [and] how many students had a loss in their family. He would actually talk about this. He would also have meetings with some of students and their families.

During those meetings, we had an idea of how this virus impacted our students and their families, specifically talking about our school. We did have students who lost a family member. [In] my class, I know I had at least two students who lost a close relative due to the virus. And it is difficult when you're not there to console [them], because a lot of the students rely on their teachers, their counselors, support staff, even their peers for that kind of support emotionally, you know, when they need it.

It was difficult because we did have a discussion with some students who were just depressed. Depressed, not just because they couldn't be with their friends, not just because they couldn't be in a school environment with what they're used to—depressed because, when a family member was sick because of COVID, they didn't know who they could talk to. You know, because, if everybody else is busy, they were trying to take care of the family member. They had their own things going on. It was really difficult for them to kind of just take that on, on their own, and not know where to turn to talk to somebody.

As teachers, when we came across that, we had to reflect [and] put ourselves in their shoes and just help them in any way we could, whether it was just offering a word of advice—you know, like, “You should just take this time to shut off from everything. Do something to take your mind away from things.”

One of my students, [who is] a senior, said that her mother was really sick because of COVID. And that's why I told her, “Listen, just don’t worry about our school. Don't worry about anything. Just take this time to just de-stress, do something you like to do. And then we can kind of pick up from there.”

We did help students in any way that was possible. When we do return, we hope to catch up with these students. And we do have counselors. We have a therapy room where students can go. There are food tables; there are couches—[students] can just sit and talk and just de-stress. So, hopefully we can get them to talk through their feelings and help them resolve some of the issues they couldn't resolve or [didn’t know] how to deal with it.

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Noelle: It just seems that you all are approaching this with the whole-student, the entire faculty, and your curriculum, as best prepared as you can [make it] for this coming school year. What advice would you have in our closing remarks for a new teacher who's starting the school year?

Priyank: Be compassionate. I think it's all about, when you see your students, trying to understand and learn what and where they're coming from. And I think if you build that relationship early on, if you have that compassion, if you have built that trust and that understanding, it's going to make it a lot easier, for not just you as a teacher, but also for the students, because they're willing to trust you. They [are] willing to take a risk with you, and they’ll be much more understanding of your demands.

I think it's all about being compassionate, putting yourself in their shoes. If you do that and just be understanding of the circumstances that they are in, it will definitely be beneficial to both parties.

Noelle: Thank you so much. I'm definitely going to keep that word front of mind: compassion. And as you said, be compassionate [with] your students. It's also being compassionate [with] yourself and definitely [with] all of us in the profession.

Pri, I'm so glad to be connected with teachers like yourself, who are sharing great advice, really thinking about the work at hand, and most importantly, staying within the profession, giving to others, and contributing to the future of our students. Thank you so much for what you do. And I look forward to eventually being able to come back and see you and Newark.

Priyank: Yeah, I hope so soon. Thank you so much for having me back again. I look forward to hearing from you again, take care. Be safe, and your family too.

Lish: Thanks for listening. If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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