What It's Like to Be a Teacher in the COVID–19 Era

Photo: Cajon Valley Unified School District, in California, pushed for in-person learning to help working parents. (Courtesy of Superintendent David Miyashiro)

Take a deep breath. Accept mistakes. And when all seems lost, reach out to your teacher best friend to lift you up. This is how educators across the country working in remote, in-person, and hybrid settings say they are getting through this unusual school year.

Teachers shared with us what's going well. We heard about kids' resilience and their super-amazing tech skills. Teachers also touched on challenges they’re facing: their not-so-super-amazing tech skills and the tricky adjustment to pandemic education, in all its forms. Through it all, teacher camaraderie has helped. That's why we asked educators to share advice for their colleagues. Read on for more insights on the struggles and surprising joys of pandemic teaching.

Julia Allan, Pre-K and Special Education Teacher

Bryant Woods Elementary in Howard County, Maryland

Julia Allan currently teaches eight students remotely with the help of five other adults. The class is made up of English learners, students who are tuning in from daycare, and some students who require special services. All students use Chromebooks.

What is going well? The kids are learning how to use the computer independently because mom and dad have to work. It’s amazing what they can do and how easily they catch on. It’s the adults who have the harder time with tech. It helps that our county took the time to ensure our kids have everything they need—Chromebooks, manipulatives, art supplies—to complete tasks. Our district also provides [Wi-Fi] hotspots so everyone has internet access.

What is your biggest challenge? Everything is a challenge because everything is new to me this year. The biggest takeaway for me: you need your colleagues now more than ever. One former colleague hopped on a phone call with me and we figured out how to use the [interactive presentation tool] Pear Deck together. We tested it out and made sure it worked. Camaraderie right now is key.

Something goes wrong every single day. Those of us who are new to remote learning don't have that toolkit to fix things ourselves. I think it’s all about the attitude you present when things go wrong. It’s okay take a breath. Everything can be fixed. Whenever I make a mistake, I announce it. I’ll say, “I just made another mistake! And it’s okay because what did I learn?” Surprisingly, I had this attitude going into it. A lot of my friends are getting frustrated, though. We just have to talk to each other and give each other support.

What advice do you have for teachers? None of us has experienced anything like this. I have teacher colleagues who have not left their house since March 15. The isolation alone has everyone in different moods. Reach out to your teacher best friend, that one person you can count on to celebrate your highs and lift you up when you’re feeling low.

As for the kids, they’re going with it. This is school to them. They haven’t experienced anything different. It’s our attitudes that set the tone for what they’re experiencing. So no matter how frustrated I might be on the inside, no matter how many things go wrong, I try to present it as a learning experience for students.

"Reach out to your teacher best friend, that one person you can count on to celebrate your highs and lift you up when you’re feeling low."

Julia Allan Pre-K and special education teacher in Maryland

Amanda Rack, First-Grade Teacher

Knob Hill Elementary in San Marcos, California

Amanda Rack is teaching remotely until her district deems it safe to return to in-person learning. All of her students have Chromebooks.

What is going well? I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to connect with my new first-grade class over a computer. I’m surprised it hasn’t been a problem. They record themselves reading using Seesaw, so I can hear how they sound out words and I can use that information to guide instruction. But it’s also been a great way to feel connected to them. I love hearing their little voices when they read!

Some kids have already begun making inside jokes with me. I told them I don’t like oranges. In a letter to me, a student wrote “Do you want an orange?” In a picture holding up the letter, he has a smirk on his face, which was funny. Another kid read the picture book I Need a New Butt. He posted a photo of the book cover, and the next day, he said: "So, Ms. Rack, did you see the book I read yesterday?" He giggled. I said, “Yes, I saw it buddy!” I’m seeing bits of their personality coming through the computer screen. It’s important to make a connection with them as people, not just as students.

What is your biggest challenge? Everything! Every day, I’m learning something new, trying to make things work better for me, my students, and their parents. Zoom has a lot of technical issues—the screen freezes, kids get locked out—that force me to stop instruction. I don’t get through as many lessons as I’d like, but I also don’t have it in me to just let a kid sit there and struggle and cry. By now, they’ve gotten used to these problems, and they know to log out and back in. They’re also the first to let me know when I’m talking on mute.

I try to go with the flow. I tell them, “It’s okay to be frustrated that something is not working, but we can follow the steps. Who do we ask for help and in what order?” When I’m frustrated, I let them know that I’m going to take a deep breath and try to figure it out. They’re going to feed off how I feel, so I have to be aware of my reactions. Luckily, I can turn to my first-grade team for help. We meet every week to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and how we can make adjustments.

What advice do you have for teachers? None of this easy. This is not the job I signed up for. There are definitely days that I don’t want to get out of bed because I don’t want to do this for one more day. But then I see my students' faces on the computer, and it’s all worth it. So give yourself grace. This is a learning experience for everyone. On days when everything seems to go wrong, know that there was probably a lot that went right, too. Do your best to highlight the things that went well each day. Find the small victories and focus on that.

Perry Hollins, Fourth-Grade Teacher

Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois

Perry Hollins been teaching remotely since March and has volunteered to teach in person once schools in his district are allowed to open under a hybrid model. All of his students have Chromebooks, something the district made happen soon after the pandemic began.

What is going well? Children are resilient. They deal with whatever’s happening and go with the flow. It was a lot easier for them to jump onboard with online learning than it was for teachers. They are teaching me about tech. They know technology so well, and that’s the cool part for them. Online learning was cool to them. They’d say, “Oh yeah, I get to talk to my friends on Zoom!” They’d show up early for school. That was the beginning of the year, before the newness wore off. Remote learning seemed cool at first, but now students are realizing they miss that human connection.

What is your biggest challenge? Before the pandemic, we said, “Not too much screen time.” Now, here we are screen-timing them up. It’s screen time on steroids. I realized students are not engaged. They’re checking out because their bodies aren’t created to sit that long. I give myself six minutes to get my lesson across. Any longer than that and their eyes start drifting. So I find different ways to get them up and moving about as part of the lesson.

Perry Hollins, a fourth-grade teacher at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, works in his at-home classroom. (Courtesy of Perry Hollins)

Fourth graders need to work on sensory details, so I have them go out and look for things in nature that they would miss if they were driving by in a car. The idea is to find things, examine all the details, touch and smell them. I give them more time than I would if we were in class. Instead of 10 minutes, I’m giving them 20. We’re getting less done, but I’m finding the work is more meaningful. The kids are telling us to slow down. They’re so happy to get 20 minutes to complete the task, and I find they come back with work of much higher quality. They brought back leaves. One student shared a picture of tree bark. Another described the yellow ring at the top of a fire hydrant. Some just made lists of everything they saw. Less is more during the pandemic.

What advice do you have for teachers? Focus on how kids are feeling. I’m not trying to act like we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. Students have pandemic journals. They write in them at night and share during Zoom calls, if they choose. When we begin each Zoom call, no one talks until everyone has put their emotion, how they’re feeling, into the chat. They choose words from an emotion wheel. I hear a lot of “tired” and “anxious,” but “joyful” shows up, too. It depends on the day. But it’s extremes. One day, it’s “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.” The next day it’s “I’m irritable. Don’t talk to me.” I get it. This is what the pandemic and unrest are doing. As much as we think we’re shielding them, they’re feeling it.

I let them know I’m paying attention. I’ll say, “Uh-oh, we need to check on Keisha* today. [*The child's name was changed.] She’s feeling tired and a little irritable, so let’s check on her throughout the day. Keisha, if you need me, I’m here. Chat with me at lunch.” It usually helps that their feelings are being validated. Then we’ll do a sharing circle: What was your night like? What’s going on in your world? It takes some time, but I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay.

At Mechanicsburg Middle School, in Pennsylvania, students come to school two days a week and learn remotely on the other three days. (Courtesy of Brooke Markle)

Brooke Markle, Seventh-Grade English Teacher

Mechanicsburg Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Brooke Markle's school took a hybrid approach where students come to school two days a week and learn remotely on the other three days. Her students use Chromebooks that were distributed to students after the pandemic started.

What is going well? Our students are so happy to be face to face with teachers and classmates. We are asking them to be more independent with their learning, and a lot of them are rising to that challenge. We still have several students who need a little more scaffolding, a little more hand-holding, but at this point in the school year, kids are comfortable reaching out to their teachers and asking for help. That’s a big win. We were concerned at first that they might not be comfortable because they only see their teachers twice a week, but they’ve gotten really good at reaching out for help when they need it. They are so resilient. For my part, the hybrid plan really allows me to get to know my students. That’s possible remotely, too, of course, but face-to-face instruction is what we know how to do as educators.

What is your biggest challenge? Our time with students in the classroom is limited, so we try to make the most of it. I’m always asking, “What items do I need to review with them in class, and which items can they do on their own during remote learning?” I don’t want them to get home and feel like they don’t know how to complete an assignment. I want them to feel successful. I remind them every day that if they have questions when they are home, they can email me. Even if I’m teaching a face-to-face class, I can still take a minute or two to reply to students' emails and get them back on track.

But for some kids, trouble with an assignment is the least of their problems. They might be in charge of the household while parents are working. They’re not as productive because they are taking care of younger siblings who have their own remote school work to get done. So we try to be mindful that there’s a variety of home situations, and we make sure that what we’re asking students to accomplish during remote learning is fair to them. I prioritize what I absolutely need them to do, any way to lessen the burden for them because I don’t want them to just throw up their hands.

What advice do you have for teachers? Give kids a check-in survey: How do you feel about being in school? How much time are you spending per class on remote days? It shows that you care about what this experience is like for them while providing valuable information. Take all that survey data and go through it with students. Talk about the general trends. We found that English students are spending between 30 and 60 minutes on school work on remote days, which is exactly what I expected if I’m asking them to read, finish up an assignment, answer a critical-thinking question. That information allows students to gauge whether they’re brushing over their work too quickly. We also learned from our survey that students want to complete assignments using paper and pencil. I think it’s hard for them to be on the computer too long on remote days.

"At this point in the school year, kids are comfortable reaching out to their teachers and asking for help. That’s a big win."

Brooke Markle Seventh-grade English teacher in Pennsylvania

Bonus view from a superintendent

David Miyashiro, Superintendent

Cajon Valley Union School District in California

David Miyashiro made it a priority to get kids back into classrooms in the district’s 27 schools under a hybrid learning model in order to provide some relief to working parents. Students at the school have had their own laptops for the past seven years, and the school has long incorporated technology into the curriculum.

What is going well? Just being able to visit classrooms and see our students and teachers; it’s joyful. That is the word I’ve heard most from teachers and parents and staff: joy. Teachers helped make the transition from distance to in-person a smooth one. When we were doing distance learning, teachers went out of their way to create a classroom environment. They had a stuffed animal to represent each student, so kids could see where they sit in class. Once class started in person, the stuffed animals became “snuggle buddies” as a way to replace group hugs.

During in-person learning, kids, for the most part, did a great job following safety procedures like wearing masks and keeping that physical distance. Middle school kids started to get comfortable, and we had to remind them of the policies. We’d say, “I know these rules aren’t easy, but for our safety, during the pandemic we have to follow them.” The parents were a big help with keeping kids on track because they know that the children who defy the rules will be assigned to distance learning as a safety precaution, and parents need their kids in school so they can work. The kids really want to be in school, too, so it doesn’t take much to get them back on track. They got the message pretty quickly, and I haven’t seen any problems with kids not following the rules recently.

What is your biggest challenge? In our hybrid model, kids come to school twice a week. That’s not the best scenario for parents who have to work five days a week. Our ultimate goal is to have options for parents. Let’s say I’m an essential worker and my kid is doing hybrid learning, but I need my kid in school five days a week. We are responding to their needs and finding ways to help. We are opening our extended learning and enrichment for as many families as we can. Ideally, 100% of families who ask for full-time schooling can get it. It requires additional staffing and supervision and enrichment teachers. We’re using stimulus money to get this done.

What advice do you have for school leaders? Go see what’s working in other districts, even if that means you’re doing an online visit. Just as you would evaluate curriculum or technology, go see the hybrid approach in use in a school or district. Safety rules, guidelines, lessons—they’re all theoretical until you actually see how they work in real time. We went to grocery stores to see their safety guidelines and just followed suit. We also learned from a lot of countries that started school ahead of us, like Sweden and Singapore. Go to learnit.world where global ed leaders share ideas on how to keep kids safe in school and use technology to mitigate learning loss. There are so many other great resources there, too.

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How are you navigating a remote and in-person school year? Explore HMH Connected Teaching and Learning to address instructional planning, remote teaching and learning, equity and access, and professional learning.

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