‘If I Could Handle This, I Can Handle Anything’: First-Year Teachers...

Voices | Teaching and Learning

‘If I Could Handle This, I Can Handle Anything’: First-Year Teachers Reflect on the Pandemic

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Aug 11, 2020

‘If I Could Handle This, I Can Handle Anything’: First-Year Teachers Reflect on the Pandemic
Clockwise from left: Jamie Wong Baesa, Kristen Stein, Mikia D. Frazier, Ashley Levy, Steve Middleton, Lauren Bayersdorfer, Geri Zamora, Hannah Long and Ranjini Nagaraj.

This article is part of the report: Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges.

Jamie Wong Baesa had been dreaming of her first year as a teacher since she was 7 years old, when she would line up her stuffed animals and launch into a lesson.

Mikia Frazier, too, spent years envisioning the day she would get to walk into her own classroom. Kids from the neighborhood would often stop Frazier’s mother, a school principal, in the supermarket to tell her how much she’d changed their life. Each time that happened, Frazier was that much more certain that teaching was what she wanted to do.

For others, the calling didn’t come as early. Kristen Stein and Lauren Bayersdorfer realized they wanted to be in the classroom midway through college, switching their majors from cybersecurity and accounting, respectively, to pursue careers in teaching. Steve Middleton worked as an engineer for more than a decade before transitioning to education.

Regardless of the experiences and interactions that led these educators to the field, each entered their first year of teaching—the 2019-20 school year—filled with excitement, eagerness and anxiety. They didn’t quite know what to expect—what kind of students they’d have in class, what crises may come up, where they would excel or fall short. And certainly none of them could have anticipated the arrival of a global pandemic that would force schools nationwide to close their doors and develop remote learning plans on the fly.

First-year teachers already face many challenges. The job is unpredictable, and for newcomers, that can be intimidating. Many of the nine first-time teachers featured in this story said that the fall semester was all about getting the hang of teaching—learning how to juggle after-hours responsibilities like grading and emailing, establishing their teaching styles and building relationships with students. When they started the second semester, most felt like, finally, they had figured it out. Then COVID-19 changed everything.

As Frazier, a fourth grade teacher in Hinesville, Ga., describes, “I will always remember my first year by the pandemic ... knowing that COVID-19 really just kind of came in and cut the school year almost in half. But I'll also remember we got through it.”

Though their experiences are unique, nearly every educator interviewed for this story said the hardest part of remote learning was the loss of student connection and the way their relationships suffered. They worried about kids who were already struggling, and about those with unstable home environments. They missed the silly jokes and hearing the sound students make when they finally understand a new concept.

Despite all that COVID-19 took away, many first-year teachers noted that they learned more about teaching and themselves than they likely would have in an average year. They gained confidence in their abilities. And they found it comforting that during remote learning, none of the teachers—not even the veterans—really knew what they were doing.

Hear from three of the teachers featured in this story on this week's EdSurge Podcast. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

In reflecting on the last year, they also expressed concern about the upcoming one. What will it be like to do this all over again, but with students they don’t know? How will they build trust and make the kind of impact that drew them to this field?

The nine educators profiled below together represent seven U.S. states, from California and New Jersey to Oklahoma and Georgia. Some held live video calls with students during remote learning in the spring. Others haven’t seen their students’ faces since March. Some taught students who lost family members to COVID-19, or who nearly succumbed to it themselves. Others haven’t really felt the effects of the virus yet.

Here are their stories—as told to EdSurge reporter Emily Tate, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Meet the First-Year Teachers

  • Jamie Wong Baesa, a middle school math teacher who hasn’t seen her students’ faces since March
  • Hannah Long, an early childhood teacher who juggled personal concerns with professional responsibilities
  • Geri Zamora, a high school history teacher who nearly lost a student to COVID-19
  • Mikia D. Frazier, a fourth grade teacher who says remote learning reaffirmed the career path she chose
  • Lauren Bayersdorfer, an AP Calculus teacher and cheerleading coach who felt that she was in over her head
  • Kristen Stein, an elementary school teacher who enjoyed remote learning more than expected
  • Ranjini Nagaraj, a high school chemistry teacher who worried about her students’ basic needs
  • Ashley Levy, the youngest teacher on staff, who assisted more experienced educators with remote learning
  • Steve Middleton, a former engineer who taught seventh graders remotely while helping his own kids learn at home
Left: Jamie Wong Baesa's seventh grade math class in Lorena, Texas. Right: The desk area where she taught during remote learning. (Courtesy of Jamie Wong Baesa)

Jamie Wong Baesa

Age: 24
Taught: Seventh grade math
School: Lorena Middle School in Lorena, Texas
Students served: About 140
Roommates: One
Technology classes taken: Four, including one graduate class
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: Two semesters
Salary: $40,000
Started the year feeling: Excited, nervous, eager
Ended the year feeling: Relieved, uncertain, thankful

Just before spring break, shortly after all the students at Lorena Middle School had finished reading “Call of the Wild,” they went on a field trip to see the film adaptation of the novel in theaters. Everything seemed completely normal, Jamie Wong Baesa recalls. She told students goodbye, expecting to see them after break in a week. That’s when COVID-19 hit.

Wong Baesa’s district did not meet in person again after that, and there was no live instruction during remote learning. She didn’t get to see or talk to her seventh graders after spring break. Instead, her middle school assigned a different subject for each day of the week. Wong Baesa, the only seventh-grade math teacher at her school, taught math to all seventh-grade students on Mondays via pre-recorded video lessons, and spent the other days grading and planning for upcoming lessons.

“On a normal school day, in person, I teach six periods. So, during first period, if the lesson doesn't work, it becomes apparent very quickly. And then it's like, ‘Well, scratch that. I'll reteach it tomorrow.’ But with remote learning, it was a lot harder because there were maybe two or three lessons where it just flopped. Students were like, ‘We don't get this at all.’ All their work was wrong. I’m like, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ But by that point it was already too late, because everyone had already seen the lesson and didn’t get to try again till the next week.

One of the challenges was that I'd never taught this stuff before to a live audience, and now I had to figure out how to teach it to a remote audience. So that was definitely difficult—wrestling with how to make this accessible on technology in a way that [students] can understand. Because you miss the facial expressions, the ways they can instantaneously ask questions in real life.

It was hard not being able to check in and see how they're doing—learning from administrators, ‘Oh, yeah, he's taking care of his four younger siblings and that's why he hasn't been doing his math homework,' or hearing from distressed parents, ‘I'm so sorry, we haven't had electricity,’ or ‘We have five kids, and they're all sharing one computer.' And you're like, ‘Oh, there's so much more to this school dynamic and day.’ It helped me remember what's really important in this time.

I kept thinking about my students who had hard home lives or [those who] would get really frustrated when they do mathematics, and not being able to just pull them aside and say, ‘Hey, you're doing great. You're going to be OK.’ That was really hard.

And [at times] I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm totally failing as a teacher,’ but having to reconcile that with, ‘OK, everybody's learning, we're doing the best we can do. At the end of the day, if the students don't know this one concept, they're probably going to be OK.’

I think, at the end of the year, remote learning helped confirm that I am in teaching for the relationships. Being able to see students learn and grow and develop has been so big for me. Especially because COVID-19 took some of that away, it just made me realize that, without relationships, it would be a lot harder to believe deeply in what I do.

When I think about next year, if we don't have any sort of face-to-face component and we do have to go online, I don't know how that will work. Especially if it's with students who I've never met in the flesh before.”

Hannah Long teaching in her T-K/K classroom in Petaluma, Calif. before the pandemic. (Courtesy of Hannah Long)

Hannah Long

Age: 26
Taught: T-K and kindergarten
School: Two Rock Union Elementary in Petaluma, Calif.
Students served: 20
Roommates: One, plus an adorable dog
Technology classes taken: None
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: Two semesters
Salary: $46,000
Started the year feeling: Passionate, driven, excited
Ended the year feeling: Devastated, incomplete, hopeless

After studying painting and printmaking in college, Hannah Long spent a few years as a full-time artist. While working at an art studio for young children, her boss noted that she was a natural with kids and ought to become a teacher. And that’s exactly what she did. The irony is that Long’s own experience in school was not wholly positive. She was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and ADHD in third grade, and her elementary school years were shaped by those learning challenges. She describes herself as one of the kids who was “left behind” during the No Child Left Behind era.

Today, she teaches “littles”—T-K and kindergarteners—at a rural elementary school in Northern California, about a 10-minute drive from where she grew up. When school closed during COVID-19, about half of her students lacked internet access or devices, so she used a combination of online learning and paper packets and sent each student handmade sensory bags filled with items like glue, bubbles, Play-Doh and water beads. Given their young age, Long says it was difficult to teach 4- and 5-year-olds virtually and keep everyone on track.

“COVID-19 happened and we were told we all had to have websites, so we made websites. Then we were told we were using Google Classroom [instead], so we scrapped the websites and made a Google Classroom. And then I was told that six of my kids didn't have internet or devices. It was probably more like 10 kids that either didn't have a device, internet or accessibility—so almost half of my class. So then we were doing paper packets, as well as having all the information online.

[Live Zoom meetings] turned into more checking in and talking. They got over—very quickly—doing anything academic. … I guess the buy-in wasn't there. When I teach in my classroom, I can give the kids games where they don't realize that they're learning, and they can be really enthusiastic. There was less of that.

At the beginning of quarantine, the idea that ‘It's OK to not be OK’ was floating around. And that's very untrue. When I had a Zoom call, there was no ‘not being OK.’ There was no texting their parents, like, ‘Having a bad day. Your child doesn't get to learn today.’

So that was hard because I have a life. I have a mom with cancer. My wedding was being canceled. My fiancé is in a high-risk group. It was a scary time. And so to say, ‘Everything is fine’ and to reinforce, ‘It's going to be OK’ and to try to explain that to kids was difficult.

I could say, ‘I'm feeling a little sad today’ or ‘Miss Hannah is having a hard day,’ but I couldn't not show up for my kids. There was a day when I was crying and then my fiancé was like, ‘What's wrong?’ And I was like, ‘This, this, this’ and ‘I’m scared.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh! I have a Zoom meeting!’ and wiped the tears off my eyes and [logged in and] was like, ‘GOOD MOOORNING!’ So that was really hard.

And this might be because I'm a novice teacher or just maybe my personality, but I have a hard time setting boundaries. I knew this was hard for parents. And I don't have kids. So when I was done Zooming at the end of the day, I could just go do whatever I wanted. I knew that parents were in a hard situation, and I just wanted to make sure that I was there for them as much as possible. I was getting messages late at night that they couldn't figure out something, so I would get on the computer with them and work it out for an hour.

I feel like there's the 26-year-old me and there's teacher Hannah. I'm Hannah, and then I’m Miss Hannah—the same person, but different. It was exhausting to be constantly ‘on,’ and to have to be OK [even] if you’re having a hard day. But at the same time, the parent involvement and being able to see the parents get really involved with their kids was amazing.

Next year, I'll be a second-year teacher. And that’s not what parents want. I mean, I wouldn't want to be on a pilot's first flight. So it's hard. I kind of had to win over my parents this year—and I did, a lot of them—but how do you do that if you’re remote? And the beginning of T-K is like, ‘This is what we do in class.’ And it's repeating myself over and over again: ‘We sit criss-cross applesauce with our hands in our laps … our eyes are on me,’ and then it’s forming a classroom community. How do you create a strong classroom community and a bond with your kids over a computer?”

Left: Geri Zamora's classroom at George Washington High School, part of Chicago Public Schools. Right: Zamora's desk setup for remote teaching. (Courtesy of Geri Zamora)

Geri Zamora

Age: 23
Taught: 10th grade U.S. history
School: George Washington High School in Chicago
Students served: About 150
Roommates: One
Technology classes taken: None
Prior experience with video calls: Yes
Student teaching experience: One semester
Salary: $54,000
Started the year feeling: Excited, determined, eager
Ended the year feeling: Resilient, relieved, excited

Everything was falling into place last summer for Geri Zamora—a first-generation college student who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Chicago. They had just landed a job teaching U.S. history at Chicago Public Schools and started their teaching career, a dream of Zamora’s since childhood.

Then came the Chicago teacher strike. At the time, Zamora thought the strike would be the biggest event of their first year as a teacher. But it proved to be the first of many major challenges—and losses—that they would weather.

“During the strike, the main concern was financial. [It was] my first year out of college, I had a whole bunch of loans, I just got an apartment in Chicago with my best friend, and I didn't know when I'd go back to work. My mom was in no position to help me financially—I make more than she does. She's a single mom and all of my other family is in Costa Rica.

After the strike, unfortunately, at my school, we had some other tragedies due to gang violence and gun violence. And then there was a really terrible [car] accident where we lost two seniors. So we had a very heavy year already as a school. And then the shift to remote learning happened.

So first semester … woof. But the second semester—that adjustment from not only figuring out what kind of teacher I wanted to be, but [also] how to translate that to a computer—was really difficult.

Burnout from remote learning was very real. I'm not sure what about my experience made it so bearable. I had a lot of community support. I have really lovely people in my life that were willing to hear me out, to listen to all my frustrations when I needed support. But some of my coworkers who are veteran teachers were having an incredibly difficult time through this. It just felt like I was seeing all these lovely plants wilt, and it killed me because, you know, I'm just a sapling. I want to grow up to be like them. And if I'm seeing them wilt, I mean, it's discouraging.

But we got to a point [with remote learning] where we were like, well, we're doing our best. And if students come, perfect. But it's a pandemic on their end, too. A lot of my kids were going through battles. These kids carry more on their shoulders than the average adult.

One of my students caught COVID-19 … and was on a ventilator—no health issues prior to this—and she almost died. She's fine now, but things like that were going on.

One thing we did to cope was on Friday nights we’d have movie nights, and we’d just watch something together [as a class]. Little virtual things, where I was connecting with my kids, made it at least a little bit more doable.

Despite all of the changes and turbulence, I really felt like I was where I belonged. It’s now 100 percent ingrained that this was the job I was meant to do. If I could handle this, I can handle anything. And I think that goes for anyone else who is still really into this profession at the end of this.

This year in general was a big self-discovery year for me, not only as a teacher. My gender identity has always been something I kind of questioned. I identify as non-binary. I've told my coworkers. But I wasn't out to students. I wasn't out at school. I was really reflecting, especially during the pandemic, on how I want to present myself in the classroom and what my kids need.

At the beginning of the year, I was just Ms. Zamora. But after this year, I'm like, I don't really care what people think. And I have a lot of students that maybe could benefit from knowing that they have a queer teacher. So fall 2020, I'll make my debut as Mx. Zamora.”

Left: Mikia Frazier’s fourth grade classroom in Hinesville, Ga., Right: The intro slide for a day of remote learning in Frazier’s class. (Courtesy of Mikia Frazier)

Mikia D. Frazier

Age: 23
Taught: Fourth grade language arts and writing
School: Joseph Martin Elementary School in Hinesville, Ga.
Students served: 125
Roommates: One
Technology classes taken: One
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: Two semesters
Started the year feeling: Excited, prepared, thankful
Ended the year feeling: Grateful, impactful, hopeful

Mikia Frazier comes from a family of educators, the most influential of whom is her mother, a high school principal. After dreaming of becoming a teacher for nearly 20 years, Frazier secured a job at a school that serves many military families, due to the district’s proximity to the Fort Stewart Army base in eastern Georgia. While Frazier was teaching in the 2019-20 school year, she was also taking online courses to earn her master’s degree in elementary education, which she recently completed.

Her district is one-to-one, and Frazier started using learning technologies with her students in the first semester, but that still didn’t prepare them—or her—for full-time remote learning in the spring.

“My first year was definitely a whirlwind. But I loved every minute of it.

I absolutely loved my students. I loved going to work every day. … Then, of course, in the middle of the school year, out of literally nowhere, there's a pandemic, and no one really knows what to do. One day it’s, ‘OK, well, we're going to take a week off from school and we'll be back next week.’ And then ‘next week’ turned into two weeks, and then two weeks turned into next month and next month turned into the next semester.

It was kind of sad to see my first year of teaching cut short. But one thing I can say is that, as a first-year teacher, it taught me how to adapt. Education is always unpredictable, but we just kind of learned to roll with the punches that came with a pandemic. It was uncharted territory for everyone. No one really knew what to do. So I didn’t feel like the first-year teacher who was just clueless. Everybody was in the same boat at that point.

Being that we’re very technology-heavy in our classrooms, it was a more seamless transition to remote learning, because our students had knowledge of what Google Classroom is, what Canvas is and how they can use it at home. The difference was that Ms. Frazier was talking to you through a screen as opposed to sitting in front of you or standing next to your desk.

When we first went digital, I felt like I was trying to continue teaching as if I were still in the classroom. Next year, I want to focus more on having them engage with the content so that they're actually gathering their own thoughts and ideas. Of course, I’ll still teach, but I want to give them more opportunities through digital platforms for them to engage with whatever concepts we're learning.

My students surprised me so much. They just kind of jumped right in and they were able to adapt to it. So that was something that brought me a little bit of peace, knowing that, ‘OK, well, it's not all terrible. My kids are still working. They're still learning.’

The most difficult part of remote learning was not seeing my students. I’m really big on interaction, and seeing them every day really just changes the trajectory of any type of day I’m having. I’m a hugging kind of teacher. Anytime they see me, they want to hug and want to talk for hours. And just not being able to see my students in person, that was really difficult for me personally.

I definitely learned that my passion for teaching stems from seeing my students thrive. I always knew that teaching was my dream career; I always knew that it was what I was going to do. But after going through the strain of a first year such as this one, it really proved to me that this is where I am supposed to be. Because most people would experience this pandemic and they would say, ‘Never again, there's definitely a new career for me somewhere.’ But I feel like this gave me much more strength to know that, no matter what comes in the way of my students’ learning, there's a way to break down that barrier, because COVID-19 definitely became a major barrier to my students.”

Left: Lauren Bayersdorfer with students from her cheerleading squad before the pandemic. Right: Bayersdorfer’s remote teaching setup. (Courtesy of Lauren Bayersdorfer)

Lauren Bayersdorfer

Age: 24
Taught: Algebra I and AP Calculus
School: Weehawken High School in Weehawken, N.J.
Students served: About 100
Roommates: One
Technology classes taken: Two
Prior experience with video calls: Yes
Student teaching experience: One full-time student teaching placement, three once-a-week school placements
Salary: $65,000
Started the year feeling: Nervous, excited, optimistic
Ended the year feeling: Relieved, defeated, inspired

By the first day of school, Lauren Bayersdorfer was already wondering if she’d gotten in over her head. She had been a math major in college and was excited to teach the subject, but the then-23-year-old didn’t expect to be teaching AP Calculus to seniors. Nor did she expect to become the high school cheerleading coach, having never cheered a day in her life. In both cases, she had a lot to learn to be able to support her students in the ways they needed. Those commitments made for long days in the first semester. She describes grading papers while eating dinner and agonizing over lesson plans in the shower.

Her district had been one-to-one with Chromebooks for several years when the pandemic hit, and she says teachers were given a lot of autonomy around how to conduct remote learning with their students. As a district located just across the Hudson River from New York City, many of Weehawken’s students and staff were affected personally by the pandemic.

“[In the first semester, I wondered], ‘Are the kids going to be able to tell that I have no clue what I'm doing?’ That was my fear: ‘Can they tell how anxious I am, and how intimidated I am?’ With COVID-19, it was more like, ‘How can I make sure I'm doing my job well, given the circumstances?’

I really struggled to get all of my students into a Google Meet with me. Even if I held it the same time and day every week, I would still only have five to 10 students come—if that. There's not really a way to force kids to come, which is the problem. You can say you'll count it as a grade. They don't care. You can say, ‘We'll play hangman.’ They don't care.

So they don't care to come, and that's fine. [But] I wish I could have all 18 of my kids on camera so we could do a little activity—not even a math activity, just a bonding activity. I wish we were able to do that.

There came a point where I just didn't stress it, because it's a tough time for everyone. As long as they were doing the work, that's what I cared about.

I definitely lost the connection with students. One of the reasons I enjoy my job is being able to see students. A teacher’s favorite sound is, “Ohhhhhh!” Like, when they finally get something? But you don't get to see those moments [online]. You don't get to see them struggling with a problem. You don't get to see them interacting with their peers. Those little memories that I have from the year—those are all pre-March. You don't really have those with virtual teaching, so I definitely missed that.

Our school got very lenient toward the end of the year because you can't expect kids to learn quadratics when they’re on their own, [especially] given the whole situation of COVID-19 and how especially impacted we were here [in New Jersey].

My biggest question is did they actually learn? With math, it's just so easy to cheat—because of all the apps, because of their peers, because they're so connected all the time. It was just an ongoing question I had in my mind: Are they actually learning? And to what extent did they learn? That was a big question mark that me and my entire department had because it's just so easy to get the answers elsewhere.”

Left: Kristen Stein's classroom in Choctaw, Okla. Right: Her remote teaching setup from the spring, using a bookshelf as a desk. (Courtesy of Kristen Stein)

Kristen Stein

Age: 26
Taught: Fourth grade reading, writing, language arts and spelling
School: L W Westfall Elementary in Choctaw, Okla.
Students served: 40-45
Roommates: Three
Technology classes taken: Two
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: One semester
Salary: $36,000
Started the year feeling: Hopeful, but also anxious and inadequate
Ended the year feeling: Accomplished, confident, thankful

Kristen Stein started college pursuing a career in cybersecurity, but soon switched her major to education, realizing that teaching is where she was “most naturally gifted.” After years of babysitting and working with children at her church, it felt like the right move. But the decision did not come without doubts. Stein’s student teaching experience was difficult, and led her to question whether she was cut out for this work and could continue doing it long-term.

Given the challenges that arose during her first year teaching—at a district a few miles from where she grew up, just outside of Oklahoma City—some of those same concerns and insecurities presented themselves again.

“It was really a struggle to drive to work every day and convince myself I have what it takes to do this job. [But] it was really exciting at the end of the day to drive home and say, ‘That was worth doing.’

The first semester, I remember feeling a lot of stress and anxiety. There's so much more to teaching than writing lesson plans, standing up in front of kids and delivering those lessons. There's paperwork and emails and meetings and committees and entering grades. So I felt really blindsided by just the sheer amount of hours that it takes to really do this job well.

I felt like, ‘Soon, they're going to realize I'm a sham and I'm not going to get asked back to teach here.’ And that's so scary. I felt a lot of that pressure and a little bit of imposter syndrome, even though everyone was so welcoming and encouraging. But I put down a lot of those burdens the second semester. I worked less hours. I tried to have a better balance of work and life. And from January to spring break, I laughed with my kids a lot more, and I noticed the fun things that were happening in their friendships. Releasing some of the pressure to perform perfectly helped me to enjoy all the little things that I was missing in that first semester.

And then in the fourth quarter, everything was turned upside down. But when I think back on it, I enjoyed [remote learning] more than I expected. I found that it was such a great comfort that no one else knew what they were doing either. All of a sudden, I wasn't the only one that was out of my depths and confused and trying to keep up. And I felt more of a sense of, ‘We're all trying to figure this out together,’ rather than they all know what they're doing and I am the one that has no idea. So I felt more of a sense of belonging and community when everything was up in the air for everyone, not just me.

My first year … helped me to see that that's the nature of life. There are things that we're going through that are hard, and there are things that we're going through that give us a lot of joy, and those are happening at the same time. I had to choose, a lot of the time, which thing I was gonna focus on—and sometimes the struggle needed more of my attention. But at a certain point, I [could] choose to enjoy a relationship with one student that's going really well, even though I might be struggling in my relationship with another. My first year teaching taught me so much more about balance in life than any previous life stage.”

Left: Ranjini Nagaraj's classroom in Fort Worth, Texas before her school closed. Right: Nagaraj’s remote teaching setup at home. (Courtesy of Ranjini Nagaraj)

Ranjini Nagaraj

Age: 22
Taught: Ninth grade science and 10th grade chemistry
School: Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth, Texas via Teach for America
Students served: About 150
Roommates: Two
Technology classes taken: One
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: None
Salary: $54,000
Started the year feeling: Inspired, excited, nervous
Ended the year feeling: Relieved, frustrated, reflective

Ranjini Nagaraj, a California native, is a Teach for America corps member serving in Texas while she applies to medical school. She teaches high school science and chemistry at a Title I school in Fort Worth with a student population that is about 70 percent Hispanic, including many English language learners.

When Nagaraj came back from spring break in March, her school was scrambling to adjust to the new realities brought on by COVID-19. To complicate things further, the school had just suffered a malware attack—everything from copy machines to computers had stopped working, which caused delays in online learning among students and staff. In Nagaraj’s telling, the incident cost her class about three weeks of instructional time.

“The first day of school, I was very nervous. I really had no idea what I was walking into. Being just out of college, living on my own basically for the first time, doing all of the adult things, along with being responsible for over 120 kids, was very overwhelming.

The transition—like August, September and, honestly, most of October—was very difficult because I didn't have my lessons prepared more than two days in advance ... and being in the kind of school I was in, where there was so much emotional trauma and emotional baggage, was also a challenge.

The best part of it, though, was getting to know my kids, having authentic conversations with them and really building those relationships, which helped me so much when I started in January again after the break. It was light years better than the first semester, which is why I was very frustrated when coronavirus hit.

In the beginning of March, I felt like I was finding my footing in terms of my relationships with the kids, figuring out the best ways to deliver a lesson, the best kinds of support I could give them. And that all changed when online learning started.

We never went back after spring break. … I worried about all my kids all the time, honestly. Because they were in such unique circumstances. A lot of my kids had to look after their younger siblings because [their] parents were considered essential workers. And a lot of them—if they weren't in physical school—were expected to also contribute to their family's income by getting a job, like at a grocery store or in construction. So I worried a lot about their basic needs being met—if my kids had enough to eat, if my kids were doing OK mentally and emotionally. And especially for the kids that I was not able to get in contact with, that was really hard. Because of course my mind is going to worst-case scenarios.

I ended up adjusting my expectations a lot. Instead of being, like, ‘You didn't meet your growth goal of 10 percent over the unit. We're going to have a conversation,’ it was more like, ‘Was I able to have a good conversation with one kid today? Was I able to make one kid smile? Was I able to make one kid's day a little bit better?’ I realized that is what success should be for me in this situation. They're going to forget the chemistry that they learned, but I think it's harder to forget the impact that someone was able to make on them. Switching gears and focusing more on the social-emotional aspects of school was really beneficial for me in terms of the expectations that I had for myself and the expectations I had for my kids.”

Left: Ashley Levy's sixth grade classroom in Newtown, Pa., before her school closed due to COVID-19. Right: Levy’s remote teaching setup at home. (Courtesy of Ashley Levy)

Ashley Levy

Age: 23
Taught: Sixth grade
School: Newtown Elementary School in Newtown, Pa.
Students served: About 75
Roommates: Four (family members)
Technology classes taken: N/A
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: Two semester
Started the year feeling: Nervous, enthusiastic, passionate
Ended the year feeling: Inspired, dedicated, motivated

For her first year in the classroom, Ashley Levy taught sixth grade at the elementary school she attended herself in Newtown, Pa. Many of the same staff—the librarian, the music teacher and others—were still at the school, and she enjoyed reintroducing herself to them as “Miss Levy.”

Many of Levy’s colleagues guided her through the first semester, answering the many questions that she had, showing her the ropes and supporting her through a big transition. During the second semester, Levy says, the tables were turned: As the youngest person on staff and one of the most technologically savvy, she got to “return the favor” by assisting other teachers as they adjusted to virtual learning. But even though she had the technology part down, Levy realized that other components of teaching—such as motivating students and maintaining relationships—were difficult to control from a distance.

“I fully expected this first year to be very similar to student teaching. While I was student teaching, I was like, ‘Oh, this is what teaching is. This is what working in a school is like. This is great. I love it.’ I still had time to go hang out with friends and do whatever I wanted after school. And it's not that I did not have that this year, but when you walk in and you are the head teacher, you are responsible for so many things behind the scenes that you don't see during student teaching—that you don't see until you are put in the position yourself.

So whether it was grading, benchmark testing, team meetings or planning ahead, it was very different than what I expected, solely because of the amount of work and the amount of dedication that it takes. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I don't want to be in any other profession. But it was a big surprise.

In the classroom, you have this routine that you get into. You get used to seeing the kids every morning, and you can feel out their moods. You can feel out how the rest of the day might go, simply based on when they walk in the room and the conversations you have. You can set the tone. You can create an environment where the kids want to be there and are excited to learn.

And then, when you go virtual, you're totally separated from their personal lives. In school, they could come in and leave anything that was happening at home, at home. When you’re virtual, whatever's happening at home is brought to school because that is their school. That is where they're completing all of that work.

So I think the motivation factor was one of the most difficult parts of the second semester, because when you're in person, your attitude, your tone of voice, the things that you plan and the incentives or goals that you set for the class can motivate the students.

Part of me is happy that I got to be part of this crazy year, that I got to experience both virtual learning and in-person learning. Because while I hope that this is not something that we ever do have to experience again, it is always a possibility. So having had the opportunity to be a professional for the entire year and experience everything that came with it—both good and bad—was great. And it helped me gain more confidence for the fall.”

Left: Steve Middleton's seventh grade classroom in San Antonio, Texas. Right: Middleton's remote teaching setup at home. (Courtesy of Steve Middleton)

Steve Middleton

Age: 42
Taught: Seventh grade digital communications
School: Ed White DATA Middle School Magnet Program in San Antonio, Texas
Students served: About 135
Roommates: None — I live with my wife and two kids (ages 5 and 6)
Technology classes taken: None
Prior experience with video calls: No
Student teaching experience: None
Salary: $56,000
Started the year feeling: Excited, cautious, proud
Ended the year feeling: Success, relief, sagacious

About two years ago, after Steve Middleton was let go from his engineering job, he began to wonder if he was in the right field after all. He says he was a good engineer for over 10 years, but something was always missing. Plus, his two young children were growing up fast, and he wanted to be around for that.

This thinking led Middleton to make the leap into education last year. He got a job teaching digital communications to middle schoolers at a design and technology academy (DATA) in San Antonio.

“I'm really good at thinking on my feet. As an engineer, I had a job once where I did a lot of computer-aided design, and I had a boss who wanted me to make changes to this big machine that we were designing. That was awful. He'd stand behind me and say, ‘OK, stretch this thing, make this bigger and then change this dimension.’ I had to do it in real time. Nobody does that, but I got really good at it. So that really helped me, when the second semester popped up, [since] no one had any warning.

I was concerned about my family. My kids are 5 and 6, and I had to help them with their distance learning and balance it out with my own work schedule. My kids are my world, and they needed my time. I couldn't stick them in front of a movie all day.

Being right next to them, like one wall away from them ... that was hard. But I knew what I was doing was important. It was very unfair for [my students] and their parents, what happened—that suddenly they're at home, suddenly their parents are at home and have to become their teacher. From my point of view, doing that with my own kids—maybe I'm the greatest teacher in the world, but it doesn't matter. At home, I'm just Dad. I'm not a teacher, so there is some confusion about dynamics and roles.

It turns out that I got a lot more comfortable with ... the parts of myself that I've been kind of putting down, like being a little nerdy—I’m wearing a Stark Industries T-shirt—and being OK with that, and becoming a better, more patient dad from all this. I imagined my [own] kids in five years, thinking, ‘OK, if that was my kid in this classroom, how could I give them the best experience?’

I started the school year thinking teaching is about making students feel important and teaching them to be great people. I put that up on my board and I told the kids, ‘This is our class goal: I don't want you to be great students. No, I don't. I want you to be great people first, and then you will be great at anything that you do.’ That was really the goal. And I left with that being a lot more solidified in my mind, as a philosophy. It’s not about force-feeding students information. It’s about teaching them to navigate their lives, in any situation, and have confidence.

In 10 years, how will I see this time? Is it significant to me in my life? Absolutely it is. I have to look at this as two different experiences in the same year, because everything did change and it was the most unique experience teaching, I think, that anybody could have ever had.”

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