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In their own words: Teachers share highlights and challenges of the last year

Courtesy of Katie O'Donnell

Katie O’Donnell asked her students to take out a worksheet for a writing exercise that she had included in a packet of supplies. She teaches kindergarten at Detroit Achievement Academy, a charter school on the city’s west side that has been operating on a hybrid model since the fall.

One of her students, a boy she said shifts between his parents’ houses, didn’t have the packet with him, so O’Donnell asked him if there was anything else he could use to write on. She and her students watched online as he and his mother scrounged around their home for supplies. “All they could come up with was this tiny ripped-off sheet of paper, and they didn't have any pencils or anything.” O’Donnell recalled, and added that similar situations have played out several times over the last year.

When state officials ordered all K-12 schools to close on March 16 of last year to slow the spread of coronavirus, they expected the measure would be temporary; with a plan to reopen after three weeks. A year later, many of them, including public schools in Detroit, remain largely closed for in-person instruction. For many teachers, the last year has come with unprecedented challenges and surprising insights into the home lives of their students.

“Nothing you have ever been prepared for”

“I don't think people know the magnitude of what we're dealing with when we're doing this all online,” a special education teacher at a public school in Detroit said. “There is nothing you have ever been prepared for or had any class [on] because you're never doing any online stuff like that.”

The teacher, who asked that his name be withheld due to the sensitive nature of the experiences he described, said he has had students attend virtual classes in their underwear and a mother walk by her child's computer with an exposed breast that was shared with his class through video streaming.

O’Donnell said she has had to deal with a few instances of inappropriate language broadcast to her class.

“Most of the time kids are on mute, [but] I have heard a couple of swear words or a couple of like ‘unkind things,’ I would say in kindergarten language. Luckily, it's been quick and short,” she said, and noted that a message to parents of the student with the hot mic has been enough to resolve the issue quickly.

Learning to adjust

During the last year, teachers have had to learn how to adapt lessons and come up with new ways to offer support.

O’Donnell said that when all of her students were in-person in the classroom, she often used games for students to learn how to write letters and put together words. In the beginning of the year, she relied on worksheets to teach her fully remote students those language skills, but soon realized that they weren’t very engaging. “So we came up with this, like a bingo board where students have three or four different choices of hands-on activities to do each day.”

The workaround led to a shift that O’Donnell hopes to maintain even when all of her students are back in school. “A big lesson that I'm taking from all of this is just to give students a little more choice and autonomy and flexibility in choosing how they would like to meet a goal or a learning target.”

“The students are still getting speech and language services if they need occupational services or physical therapy,” the Detroit special ed teacher said. “It's just a different matter of the way that it's done, trying to incorporate the parents and trying to do things online and utilizing what you have at your house.”

While he said he’s been impressed by how well the school district has accommodated students with special needs, he has concerns that some of his students have become too comfortable with fully remote learning. “Some of the autistic students, they like the online learning environment because they're not socializing,” he said.

“That's not what we're going for, of course, when we want them to be an active part of the community and to be as independent as possible.”

Taking a toll

Teachers have had to seek out new methodologies and online resources to ensure they’re still offering students a rich educational experience, and that’s taken time. O’Donnell said she spent at least a week teaching her young students the basics of using a computer when remote learning first kicked off — from turning the volume up or down to pressing play on a video, even though most are supported by an adult throughout the day. She has also been recording videos of instructions and planning activities for her fully remote students to watch while she works with in-person students.

Beyond the additional work, there has also been an increase in social and emotional support for students and families.

The Detroit public school teacher said the last year has resulted in the loss of life of at least one student in his school from coronavirus and another who died because of a fire. He shifted lessons to try and address the grief students were feeling, and has noticed that parents have also been feeling a great deal of additional stress.

“I had a parent that needed a half an hour of my time the other day just to cry and talk about the losses that she's had,” he said. “Sometimes that that's what we're there for, to make those wellness calls.”

Now that he is “in” students’ home through their computer screens, he feels even more connected to their lives. He said he tells students and parents, “‘You're part of my family and I'm here to help you as much as possible.”

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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