Teachers have been the unsung heroes of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Their roles as educators have expanded beyond teaching with students. Teachers have become veritable jacks-of-all-trades struggling to balance multiple roles as tech support, social workers, and content creators. While teachers are juggling work with their students, they are managing their own lives with spouses, children, and extended families. Last but not least, teachers are navigating the global pandemic just as we are.
Recently, I was able to have a conversation with an educator I have known all my life. My dad, David Hamilton, has taught in public schools for more than 28 years in Upstate New York. During his career, he has worked with suburban, urban and rural communities while serving our country in the Naval Reserves and raising a family of three children with the help of a loving wife of 33 years. I thought it would be great to hear his perspective on how his career has prepared him for this unprecedented time and how he is engaging his students in a remote environment.
“I can remember the days when everything in the classroom was paper and pencil with one computer in the classroom shared amongst 20-25 students. If you were lucky, you were able to get on the computer once a week,” explained David. For many schools, today’s classroom is no longer a “room” anymore. COVID-19 has forced school districts and teachers alike to provide learning options for all student demographics.
However, having the technology to reach students is only one part of the equation that is remote learning. Now more than ever, educators are struggling to keep students engaged. How are teachers connecting with their students in the remote or hybrid teaching world we are living in? I heard the concern in my dad’s voice when he said, “It can be absolutely exhausting at times and stressful trying to meet the needs of students in a remote world because you are constantly researching for material that can be used in distance learning.”
Still, there is hope. Many software platforms are becoming readily available for school districts to utilize and implement to engage students. Passport For Good is one such platform that specifically helps educators identify, recognize, and celebrate student engagement. There are also other platforms that give teachers the ability to work with students individually based on each student’s learning level.
Attendance is an integral part of every classroom. David’s classroom went 100% remote at the beginning of the pandemic and this school year also has him teaching remotely. Teaching remotely presents a huge challenge in keeping a log of who is participating and who is engaged. He states, “Attendance has changed quite a bit. For the most part, I have a classroom that is 100% connected. However, that did not come easy…constantly calling, emailing, and texting parents to find out why their child has not logged on. I have had students not return after lunch or a given special that day.”
Fundamentally, David knew in order to keep students engaged, he had to be better than just a talking head on a screen. “My students need to know I am there for them and that I care so much for them…I have also taken the time to actually visit each of my students by going to their homes.” This kind of connection is more important today as we are seeing students drop off schools’ radars during the COVID-19 Pandemic. He explained one common occurrence, “When you are in the middle of a Google Meet and a student just randomly disappears. So now you are worried as to whether something is wrong…Students have issues with navigating [the technology] and nobody is at home to help them.”
Connecting with students is the most important aspect of being a teacher. A strong bond is necessary to foster a supportive learning environment for students to feel comfortable whether learning in-person or remotely. David established this bond by creating a “classroom” that welcomes students to learn and have fun along the way. The technology he utilizes is a major component, but leading with genuine concern and empathy is the key for all educators to connect with students and keep them engaged. When discussing how his students have progressed, David said, “One of the biggest rewards is seeing how far my students have improved while navigating a virtual classroom. They have grown so much! I have high expectations for them and they always seem to rise to the occasion.”
As we spoke about what the rest of this academic year will look like, David sounded hopeful. His school district recently announced that, as of January 2021, his school building will be switching back to completely in-person learning. This change will make a huge difference in how students will learn, but more importantly, how students will be engaged. One change to look forward to is bringing back clubs and groups. “My district is so supportive in every way and wants to be able to see these clubs become available for students again.”
David continues to develop ways to connect with students and is optimistic about getting students involved with clubs and groups in a safe, in-person environment. Being a lifelong lacrosse player and fan, David explained, “Just before the pandemic had begun, I had planned on starting an intramural lacrosse club for students in grades 3-5.” He is excited about what the start of in-person classes might mean for making this dream a reality in the near future.
I loved discussing the importance of student engagement through this interview with my dad. By acknowledging educators’ hard work and dedication to their students’ wellbeing, we can celebrate them as the champions of the pandemic that they truly are.