Lessons from COVID-19 pandemic teaching educators too

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — Lincoln-Douglas third-graders Emma Smith and Alaina Nichols sat at their table, brainstorming ideas about a Thanksgiving parade float for a writing assignment.

Alaina settled on a pumpkin pie theme.

“Pumpkin pie goes with November,” she explained. “Thanksgiving is in November.”

The pair say they’ve settled into a school year like no other — wearing masks that Emma said “feel normal to me to have on all day,” socially distancing and exchanging elbow bumps instead of high fives.

It’s also a year like no other for teacher Hannah Marks, spending her first year in charge of a classroom in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She’s doing really good,” Emma said. “She’s like the nicest and kindest teacher I’ve ever had. She lets us have a lot of fun this year.”

The school year, so far, is definitely not what Marks envisioned, but she said it’s going well for both the students and their teacher.

“It feels like everyone’s a first-year teacher this year because everyone’s so new to teaching in a mask, new to not being able to have their classroom set up like the way they wanted it to,” Marks said.

“That definitely is something that eased my nerves going into the school year. We’re all going through this together. Other people are going through the same thing I’m going through.”

The Quincy High School and Illinois College graduate also is positive she made the right career choice.

“I love being able to celebrate even the smallest success with the kids, seeing their faces light up, that boost of confidence when they discover they can actually do the math problem they’ve been struggling on or that they are a very smart kiddo,” Marks said. “I can see myself doing this for, I think, the rest of my life.”

Quincy Public Schools added 29 first-year teachers for this school year, and Teacher Mentor Project Coordinator Marilyn Smith said all are doing better than she could have ever expected.

“They came in without the expectations that the seasoned teachers had or the fear of some of the things we’re dealing with with the pandemic. Everything’s new to them. That was just one more new thing,” Smith said.

And they’ve adjusted well — with no basis for comparison.

“This is what I know,” Marks said. “I know how to teach in a mask.”

Changes tied to COVID-19 have both helped and hindered first-year teacher Jared Holman’s classroom at Quincy High School.

Wearing masks, which mask facial expressions, makes building relationships with students more time-consuming, but smaller numbers in the classroom due to the A day/B day schedule this year is an advantage.

“Classroom management is less, so that I can spend more time focusing on the students, the assignment that they’re working on, individualized instruction they may require,” Holman said.

“Only having eight or 10 students in class, as opposed to 22 or 25, makes getting to know these students a lot easier. Even though it’s every other day, the time I do have with them is of higher quality.”

The high school schedule has teachers covering the same material twice with different groups of students, “but it also allows me to sort of master my own style of teaching,” Holman said. “I learn from my mistakes. This didn’t work on A day. If I try this on B day, it might work better.”

New hires work with a seasoned teacher mentor throughout the year — and meet as a group with Marilyn Smith first for orientation and then for training every other month.

Trainings have focused on curriculum and student growth along with challenges facing some students and how to help support them as well as how to build COVID-related changes into classroom routine.

Telling students to pull their mask back up over their nose may be a frequent reminder, but it’s “the same as ‘stay in your seat’ or ‘we’re not talking,’” Smith said. “You’re still teaching. Kids are still learning.”

Mentors highlight practices used in a “normal” year, “so they will know next year, or later in the year hopefully, what is good practice still without being able to do that,” Smith said.

Good practice had Holman blending a video and some of his personal experience into a review for an upcoming test in an environmental science class.

Students drew praise from Holman for knowing the…

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