Over spring break, my son was asking about the end of the school year. When was it? How many more days would we be in school? He loves school but is also excited about warm weather and summer. Then it dawned on me: he has not yet had a full school year. Sure, he did years of preschool, but like every other first-grader in our district, this will be the first time he completes a full school year in the building.
That alone is a miracle. My tiny school district managed to open schools last August for K–2 students for five days a week of in-person instruction. My third-grade class, and kids through twelfth grade, came back on a two-day, in-person hybrid schedule. Then, in mid-March, they switched to in person four days a week. I feel lucky as both a parent and a teacher that we are able to do this safely. I was vaccinated in February and the weight lifted in the following weeks was immense.
Lucky and relieved aren’t the only ways I’m feeling as this challenging school year comes to a close. Back in the fall, I wrote about trying to see the good in this difficult situation and taking those lemons and making lemonade. I’m not going to lie; it got tough to keep the lemonade flowing in those dark winter months. I was running low on energy: physical, emotional, and mental. Like most teachers, I was constantly using energy doing things I don’t particularly love. Whipping together a video lesson, gathering online resources, and constructing online content are all current strengths of mine, but they are not my favorite ways to spend my time as a teacher.
When I found out my students would be coming back four days a week, I immediately had a renewed sense of energy. I started thinking about activities and projects we could do in class. I paused to reflect on what I have learned as an educator so far this past year. Reflection is a critical part of my practice. It helps me pause, learn, and grow under even the most frustrating of situations.
While there are things about teaching during COVID-19 that I look forward to putting in the “history” section of my reflection, there are also things I will keep as we move forward. I’d like to share them with you in case you find them useful as you start thinking about next year.
1. Wash hands often
Hand washing is literally built into our schedules this year, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Although I was a germaphobe pre-pandemic, I tried not to impart that on my students. I certainly promoted cleanliness and hygiene, but we are at a whole new level now. We are all washing our hands when we enter the classroom in the morning, before and after all food, and every time we come back in from leaving the classroom during the day. This is a practice I see sticking around in my post-pandemic classroom. Think of the colds and flus we’ll avoid—and all the missed class that goes along with them.
2. Get outside
Knowing that being outside was literally safer than being inside made me use our outdoor spaces much more this school year. When possible, we are eating snack and lunch outside. I often do my afternoon read aloud on the front lawn of our school, and my colleagues and I have tried to be creative and plan lessons to get our students outside.
3. Keep Zoom conferences and meetings
I look forward to the day when our buildings are open to families again and I can conduct my student-led conferences inside the classroom. However, Zoom has allowed some families to attend conferences they may have otherwise missed. I hope we can continue to offer this option to our families.
I love a good faculty meeting where we all gather, but there are also times when the drive is longer than the meeting itself. Zoom can be a big time saver for some types of meetings and even encourage more engagement. I hope we think about saving teachers’ time this way as we move forward.
4. Use self-pacing websites
Relying on internet resources has been essential this year. It has been really hard to try to differentiate instruction while also teaching under safety restrictions, which is why I am thankful for websites like Khan Academy Mappers. This site provides students with self-paced and personalized math learning. After putting in my students’ MAP® Growth™ scores, a set of videos and lessons is curated for each student. One way I use this tool is at the end of lessons when students are finishing activities at different times.
5. Embrace a less-is-more approach
I’ve written about quality over quantity, but never before has that been put to the test as it has been this year. Spending only two days a week in front of my students for most of the year—with safety restrictions in place—meant that thinking creatively and carefully about what to teach and how to teach was essential.
We knew we could not teach all that was missed in the previous school year, so our district advised us to think about “just in time” teaching. When looking at our grade-level standards, we thought about any necessary skills that may have been missed and that we would need to take on with this year’s learning outcomes. This helped focus our attention on what was most essential.
We were also intentional about integrating content areas and using language arts time to build background knowledge in science and social studies. We relied on resources like ReadWorks and had students practicing reading comprehension strategies while also learning about concepts like ancient cultures, animal habitats, and much more. We planned days that were thoughtful—and not overloaded—so that we could ensure students were able to fully embrace the learning opportunities and we were able to remediate as needed.
6. Make it fun
When my colleagues and I sat down to plan each week, we asked ourselves, “How can we make this fun?” Amidst a pandemic, we were still able to hold a mock election, create animal habitats and a class mural of an ecosystem, conduct various science experiments, write surveys and collect data, and hold a “market day” when learning about economics. We also found new ways to incorporate art projects into our curriculum and collaborated with our art teacher and her video lessons to make that happen.
Preparing fun lessons did not just benefit the students and increase their engagement; it fueled us with positive energy as teachers. At a time when much of our energy was drained in more discouraging ways, preparing a lesson or unit where I was able to be creative as an educator and my students were able to tap into their natural states of curiosity and creativity offered just the kind of energy we all needed.
Move forward, but look back
I don’t know about you, but I am constantly in a yo-yo state of mind. Every once in a while, I forget what life was like pre-pandemic. Even though the CDC just lifted most restrictions on wearing a mask, I feel strange going out without one and am surprised to be able to see strangers’ entire faces again. I go between wanting to stay home and continuing to live on Netflix, home cooking, and good books to wanting to go out dancing and celebrating all my friends turning 40.
I often wonder about the impact this whole experience has had on school-aged children, including my seven-year-old, and how they will remember this time. I know everyone’s experience, while shared in the big picture, is uniquely different. I hope my son and my students remember the fun we had and the way we made things work. I hope they learned to be flexible, handle disappointment, and be appreciative. I hope they recognize the way people stepped up and gave of themselves.
I no longer think about things “getting back to normal,” but rather about moving safely through this time to the next part of history. As we finish out the school year, I will remind myself to keep pausing and keep reflecting. The coming years should benefit from the lessons we are learning now.