MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Working from home and being a public school teacher are not necessarily synonymous, but since the closing of schools across the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are attempting to make it work, however challenging it may be.
In the last three weeks, Crystal Hutchinson has been pulling double duty each day: being mom to her five kids and teacher to the 22 students in her first-grade class at Middle Township Elementary #1.
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘OK, no big deal. We’re going to be back in two weeks. It’s going to be like a little vacation,’ and as the time goes on, I was realizing I really have to try to teach them from my house now because we’re not going back any time soon,” Hutchinson said.
Teachers, who have had to abruptly learn new educational tools and techniques and transition lesson plans online, are worried about the educational and emotional impact of being away from the classroom, and about the students they aren’t hearing from.
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“Hopefully, we’re learning from each other. Every teacher is doing it a different way, which is super stressful, like you’re reinventing the wheel, or just inventing the wheel at this point,” Cindy Stafford, a librarian from the Dawes Avenue School in Somers Point, said.
Hutchinson and her students have been meeting daily using the web-based video platform Zoom. The transition wasn’t too difficult for her students, who were used to her using her YouTube channel to show videos she created or aggregated to introduce lessons, but still hard in other ways.
“They’re 6 and 7 years old. They’re not able to see their friends every day. I don’t even know if they’re learning, and even if they are, their parents aren’t certified teachers,” Hutchinson said. “My biggest fear is ‘What will my students look like when they come back?’”
Jennifer Rowe, a seventh-grade teacher at the Jordan Road School in Somers Point, said in her district, the transition happened fast. Her students already had in-school exposure to the technology they would be using at home, but not every student had access. Teachers and administrators are working with families to remedy that, she said.
Rowe is supposed to be available from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each day for her students but often finds herself extending those hours.
“If they’re asking a question at 3 o’clock, we want to help them as fast as we can. There’s a lot of multichildren families, so they can’t all get online at the same time,” she said. “We’ve kind of had to be flexible about it.”
Hammonton High School history teacher Anthony Angelozzi said transitioning his class wasn’t difficult because of the subject matter, but he has had to do a lot more with email because of questions from parents and teachers he would normally answer in class. Lack of communication from some students has also been a challenge, Angelozzi said.
“Some kids with very active parents are very much making sure that the kids are held responsible. But during remote learning, there are some students who you don’t hear from,” he said.
Another challenge has been loss of personal connection.
“You can send an assignment to them, but in a normal classroom setting, you’re that smiling face at the front of the room and they look at you and you motivate them,” Angelozzi said.
Even for educators in higher education, where remote learning is more common, the transition has been difficult. Stefan Arnarson is the head of the music program at Rutgers-Camden, where he is teaching a class this semester on ear training called “musicianship.”
“My first reaction was, ‘Let’s just close the joint,’” Arnarson said. But he has found some happy surprises along the way.
Using video conferencing to hold his class, he said he has found that the students are interacting in much the same way they did in person, and they are all getting to know each other better.
Arnarson said that during time away from the classroom, he is pushing his students to find their creative spaces in their homes and to figure out how to reach people with their music remotely. He is also assigning home recording projects he wouldn’t have done otherwise.
“I’m always of the opinion that if you want to live this life, in any kind of arts field, you really have to be open to anything that comes your way. The motto is: ‘If at all possible, say yes to the gig,’” Arnarson said.
Rowe said that in the past three weeks, the thing she has learned the most is patience.
“As a teacher, obviously, you have to have some level of patience, but it’s different because I can’t just help them one-to-one, face-to-face, so it’s trying to explain things through the technology,” she said. “Just having that patience that this is all new to everybody. Not just teachers; everybody. We’re all trying to be as flexible as possible and trying to give as much of that classroom experience to our kids without actually being in the classroom.”
While teachers are trying to create meaningful lessons, they are also hoping to return to class soon.
“As a teacher, your natural inclination is to want to help your students. It makes you feel a little helpless when you feel like you’re only teaching them electronically,” Angelozzi said. “For the high school seniors, they want to graduate or have a prom, so there’s so many aspects of the school climate I hope the kids get to experience.”